Online retailing has changed supply chains; speed and precision are now everything. A modern intralogistics operation based on digitalization and automation is a key requirement for being able to survive in an increasingly more competitive environment. And digitalization certainly doesn’t just involve switching the invoicing process from paper to an electronic system. Companies need ever more intelligent systems for the intralogistics in order to remain fit for the future. This partly applies to CEP services that are responsible for handling the shipping and return of goods, but it also applies to a company’s in-house logistics operation involving the storage and picking of items.
The trend here is toward ever greater automation. Industry leader Amazon is leading the way with the purchase of the US company Kiva Systems. It developed an innovative and highly flexible intralogistics solution that uses mini robots to convey the shelves automatically to the picking stations. It is certainly a great solution, although it isn’t suitable for every company. There are also good options available on a smaller scale, such as shuttle systems that also give smaller retailers the opportunity to automate their processes in the warehouse.
Efficient intralogistics are the key to success
Whether restructuring the layout of the warehouse or using modern storage systems, an efficient intralogistics operation helps to eliminate weak spots in the warehouse. The necessary outlay pays off, because processes ultimately run more smoothly and orders can be handled more quickly, accurately, and cost-effectively. And this kind of process optimization is not a one-off move, because it is essential to continue to review the intralogistics to guarantee long-term success.
This is especially the case when businesses are growing. There is a risk here that companies will soon lose track of productivity within their own warehouse. This happens, for instance, when the current equipment is no longer able to keep up with the increased flow of goods.
It is then time for the growing company to look into a larger, preferably customized in-house logistics solution. The key aspect here involves choosing suitable storage systems to guarantee the internal flow of goods. It is essential that all elements work in harmony with one another. Once this is the case, a solution of this kind can minimize loss of time and resources and pay for itself within a very short space of time, despite the sometimes high initial investment.
The future belongs to digital intralogistics
The flexibility of the systems is an important factor for the decision-makers of online retailers, whose industry is characterized by fluctuating customer demand and a constantly growing range of products. It is essential for them that the automated logistics systems are able to react quickly and efficiently to these changes.
Yet in order to work optimally, automated systems that are technically complex frequently require constant, predictable storage quantities and a homogeneous range of products. As such, they require the very aspects that are not commonly encountered in the area of e-commerce.
Automatic = (un)flexible?
Companies will nonetheless increasingly rely on automation in their warehouses in future, according to the findings of the study E-Commerce & Intralogistics 2020 published by the market research company Technomar with the support of the German E-Commerce and Distance Selling Trade Association. The aim of the study was to identify the future use of automated systems in logistics processes in the e-commerce industry. It found that 26 percent of companies still have automated systems, despite their often lack of flexibility. The main argument put forward for their use was the systems’ high level of efficiency and flexibility. Among those companies that have currently decided against automation, the reasons given included their heterogeneous product range and/or significant demand fluctuations as well as a lack of willingness to invest, particularly among start-ups.
But what exactly should a logistics system that is optimally geared toward e-commerce look like? What should companies focus on when choosing their logistics and when is the right time to partially or completely switch to automation?
The study also provides a few answers to these questions. A decision must be made based on the specific requirements of each company in order to guarantee the optimal organization of storage, picking, and shipping processes.
Homogeneous product range, constantly high demand
Automation is easiest here, because the storage units can work at a constantly high level when similar goods are ordered, resulting in optimal utilization of the system’s capacity. Particularly suitable in such cases are automated storage shuttles or vertical carousels.
Wide product range, consistently high demand
Heterogeneous items are also well suited to storage in automated units. The additional use of bins for the differently sized goods is appropriate here, guaranteeing a high level of storage efficiency in spite of the heterogeneous product range.
Wide product range, fluctuating demand
This target group currently still has the greatest difficulties when it comes to using a standardized automatic solution. The focus here is on a desire for high flexibility when handling fluctuating orders, which is currently still offered by manual systems. Yet these can also be supplemented by automated systems such as efficient transport and conveyor technology or robotic solutions (see Amazon’s Kiva and similar systems).
Service concepts and customized solutions
In any case, it is essential to individually adapt the solution. Customized solutions and concepts require close cooperation between the manufacturer and customer. The focus of this process should be on detailed planning. The actual installation of the system follows and this is just the realization of the work done beforehand. The solutions are often based on modular designs that can be adapted or expanded to suit each customer’s needs. It is therefore important to get the customer on board as soon as possible to ensure that they get the right customized system. The initial details are generally discussed in a workshop, during which both parties agree on the approach. In addition, further, ongoing talks are necessary to ensure that everybody involved is up to date and any changes can immediately be incorporated into the plans.