Guest Column | April 30, 2014

The E-Commerce Fulfillment Challenge for Growing Retailers: Automation for the Other 90 Percent - Part 2

Beth Ann Ferner, OPEX Material Handling

By Beth Ann Ferner, OPEX Material Handling

As was stated in Part 1 of this article, a problem that almost all e-commerce retailers are grappling with these days is how to adapt fulfillment requirements to meet the exponential growth of online ordering.  Online purchasing in the United States is growing by more than 17 percent annually, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.  By 2017, continued double-digit annual e-commerce growth is expected to reach 10 percent of total retail sales in the U.S., according to market analysts, Forrester Research.  Interestingly, 80 percent of this revenue is coming from only about 10 percent of all e-commerce players.

For e-commerce retailers, the challenge of handling their Internet fulfillment lies with predicting what their order volume will be in three, five or even ten years out.  Unfortunately, the real conundrum is that this e-commerce growth is entirely unpredictable.  Because unpredictability is a constant factor in e-commerce, flexibility and scalability in fulfillment operations if absolutely critical.  As an e-commerce company’s needs increase or decrease, its pick, pack and ship model should be able to accommodate these fluctuations.

Quite different from a large Internet retailers, however, the vast majority of small-and mid-sized e-commerce companies, which accounts for about 90 percent of all retail Internet suppliers, are not highly automated and are challenged to justify the capital equipment ROI of automated systems.

The automation that is best suited to fulfill e-commerce requirements is automated goods-to-person fulfillment technology.  For dynamic e-commerce picking, highly automated goods-to-person systems provide accurate and rapid goods-to-person solutions.  These systems can achieve performance levels of many hundreds of order lines per hour with precision accuracy. 

In the goods-to-person concept, incoming goods are placed into totes, which are stored in high-density automated storage and retrieval systems.  As orders are required to be fulfilled, SKUs are automatically retrieved from storage and brought to the picker at a pick/pack station.  Since the picker does not have to walk, the focus at the pick/pack stations is on ergonomics, and high productivity, eliminating the significant travel element inherent in traditional person-to-goods picking operations.  Because goods-to-person systems present operators with only the goods needed for orders, when combined with technologies like pick-to-light and screen-direct picking, these systems cut down on the likelihood that workers will pick the wrong items, improving accuracy and productivity.

The biggest resistance to purchasing an automated goods-to-person picking system is the initial capital investment, even though the long-term benefits can significantly outweigh the costs.  But small online retailers must scale-up the efficiency of their picking operations to successfully compete with the big online players.  The pressure is on to increasingly process orders faster, and ship and deliver orders faster.  At the same time, small e-commerce companies need to continually improve order accuracy to ensure their customers have a positive and memorable experience to keep them coming back, and to minimize costly returns.  The only real solution is automated goods-to-person picking.  But, designing a solution that can handle both the fulfillment needs and investment requirements can be a challenge. 

Automated goods-to-person solutions come in a variety of technologies and configurations, but not all systems fit the needs of smaller e-commerce retailers.  John Kemp, President of Kemp Systems & Associates, a consulting firm that has provided distribution facility planning and engineering for well over three decades and for e-commerce fulfillment since the late 1990s, examined some of the key factors critical to goods-to-person system selection for smaller e-commerce operations.  According to Kemp, the latest technology in goods-to-person automation provides highly scalable and cost-efficient solutions for smaller e-commerce fulfillment centers.  To better visualize this, Kemp focused on Perfect Pick®, a robotics-based goods-to-person solution developed by OPEX Corporation, a system which closely approximates the functionality that smaller e-commerce retailers require.

Flexibility and Scalability – When assessing a goods-to-person system for e-commerce, expanding SKUs, fluctuations in throughput volume and potential reduction of SKUs need to be factored.  Seasonal influences, and the rise and fall of the popularity of items offered on the Internet, necessitate the need for highly flexible and scalable requirements in a goods-to-person automated system.  But few systems are designed for the high flexibility, and rapid, easy scalability that is needed to deal with these ever-changing e-commerce conditions.

“Looking at scalability from the most fundamental level, however, in terms of initial capital investment, most smaller Internet retailers could benefit tremendously from a more basic, and therefore less costly, initial goods-to-person module,” said Kemp.  “The get-in requirements in terms of both systems and costs for virtually every automated, shuttle-based goods-to-person system is beyond the reach of most small and many mid-sized e-commerce companies.  A specialty e-commerce retailer that may only be handling 2,000 or 3,000 SKUs has a hard time justifying the capital expenditure of even the most basic module from traditional shuttle-based goods-to-person systems.  Factoring over a five-year or ten-year ROI is a gamble that most smaller e-commerce retailers are skittish to jump into, given the unpredictability of e-commerce markets.  But these retailers still need the benefits of an automated goods-to-person pick system to remain competitive.”

“A solution to this issue has now been developed with the advent of Perfect Pick,” explained Kemp.  “The basic module of this unique robotics system was designed specifically to accommodate the needs of small Internet providers requiring a simply-designed, high-speed goods-to-person solution that could initially handle a small number of SKUs, yet could be easily expanded to process a high number of SKUs as the business requirements changed.  Additional aisles and picking stations can be seamlessly integrated into the operation.  This solution allows a significantly reduced capital investment compared to existing shuttle-based goods-to-person systems, and a short-term ROI.”

System Simplicity and Uptime – The performance of any automated goods-to-person picking system is only as good as the system is up and running.  This is true of any distribution or manufacturing process, but for e-commerce fulfillment and its extremely tight delivery deadlines, system downtime can negatively impact customer relations, something small e-commerce retailers cannot afford.  

“Simplicity of process operation is fundamental to minimizing breakdowns, wear and maintenance requirements, which ultimately means a higher probability of system uptime, and subsequent increased throughput, with lower operating costs,” continued Kemp.  “Yet, traditional shuttle-based goods-to-person picking technology utilizes a complex system of transfers, lifts and conveyors.  In shuttle systems, a shuttle moves down the aisle to a rack location and picks up a tote, pulls it onboard, then again move down to the end of the aisle where the shuttle interfaces to a lift.  Here the shuttle is either transported down, or it passes off the tote to be transported down to a lower level where the tote is again transferred off to a conveyor loop, which stages the tote to a picking station.  After picking, the tote is then lifted up, transferred over and set back down on another conveyor, and sent back into the system.  This is one pick cycle.  That multi-touch process is repeated hundreds of times per hour with conventional shuttle-based pick systems.”

Use of transfers, lifts and conveyors adds complexity to any automated goods-to-person system, which increases the possibility of slowdowns and downtime, and increases the need for part replacements and necessary maintenance, increasing the cost of operation beyond the higher initial investment represented by these added components.  

“Small e-commerce fulfillment operations need high system uptime, and this starts with system simplicity,” said Kemp.  “This has been achieved with Perfect Pick, which has been engineered from the ground up as a robotics-based system, designed to eliminate the complexity associated with every other shuttle-based goods-to-person technology.  It is a double-ended picking solution that requires no elevators, conveyors or transfers, effectively delivering the tote directly from the rack location to the picking station, without the tote leaving the robotic delivery vehicle.  The system’s design demonstrates this objective by achieving an industry-leading throughput rate (picking and putting) without the need for multiple transfer points.  For e-commerce retailers, this equates to better system uptime and higher order throughput.”

Single-Point System Failure – “Central to the performance capability of any automated goods-to-person system is its ability to access 100 percent of SKUs within an aisle,” continued Kemp.  “In conventional shuttle-based systems, each individual shuttle is held captive to a specific row, inhibiting that shuttle’s full access to all SKU locations within the aisle.  Should a shuttle break down or require maintenance, the inventory within that aisle will be inaccessible. Such a system is susceptible to single-point system failure, and means fulfillment will be interrupted.  Where

this condition may be less serious in certain industries, for e-commerce retailers this is highly undesirable.”

“This liability has been overcome, however, utilizing iBOT® delivery technology,” expressed Kemp.  “iBOTs are intelligent, wireless robots that store and retrieve totes within a goods-to-person system’s racking structure.  A key feature is the capability of each iBOT to access 100 percent of inventory within an aisle, in essence, permitting built-in redundancy for 100 percent system availability, which is desirable to ensure throughput.  This iBOT technology is integral to the Perfect Pick solution.”

The iBOTs are free to roam horizontally or vertically throughout the aisle to reach designated SKU/tote locations and pick stations, operating in real-time with microspeed response. Depending on such factors as throughput requirements, number of pick stations, pick cycle times, etc., as many as 20 or more iBOTs could be deployed per aisle, with each iBOT having access to 100 percent of the inventory in its aisle.  iBOTs can be added or removed from the system within a matter of minutes, offering a level of flexibility not available in shuttle-based goods-to-person systems.

“The iBOT technology not only eliminates single-point system failure, it also allows immediate processing of each order to maximize fulfillment,” continued Kemp.  “When an iBOT carrying a tote is received at a pick station, the iBOT tilts for ergonomic positioning to reduce stretching or lifting on the part of the operator.  Text and visual prompts on picking monitors, supported by pick-to-light, direct the operator to choose the required item(s) from the tote, and indicate where to place them into the appropriate order boxes.  When the operator indicates the final pick is complete, the system releases the current iBOT/tote, which then returns the tote to its location in the racking structure.  The next iBOT/tote is immediately placed into position for the next picking sequence.”

iBOTs also allow orders to be stored and retrieved simultaneously, and on the fly as needed, as opposed to sequentially.  This capability can make a significant difference in the speed and efficiency for optimum handling of orders on a high-throughput basis.

“The importance of energy efficiency in e-commerce fulfillment cannot be underestimated,” Kemp stated.  “In automated goods-to-person systems, the energy required to power vehicles that are moving the totes represents the bulk of the energy consumed.  To this end, the iBOTs are highly energy efficient – equipped with energy recuperation modules that utilize onboard ultra-capacitors to recapture energy during normal operation of deceleration and descent, so they do not have to leave the system to recharge.  The ultra-capacitors can store relatively large amounts of electric charge very rapidly, and are capable of delivering very large bursts of power in a highly efficient manner.  Unlike batteries, ultra-capacitors store energy electrostatically.  They are designed with a high cycle life of 5 to 10 years without the need for frequent replacement associated with battery power.”

For smaller e-commerce fulfillment centers that are striving to make their operations more streamlined and profitable, goods-to-person systems embodying smart robotics technology can provide a realistic solution to not only improvement in order throughput and better order accuracy, but also reduced labor costs and optimized facility space requirements.  Such online retailers are now, for the first time, in a position to acquire the technology to process orders rapidly and accurately based on their current needs, rather than projected estimates of where their throughput will be in five or ten years.  This allows the flexibility for the goods-to-person system to grow, incrementally, at the actual rate that their e-commerce business is growing. 

About The Author


Beth Ann Ferner directs the marketing efforts for OPEX Material Handling, a division of OPEX® Corporation, a recognized global technology leader in document imaging and high-speed mailroom automation.  For forty years, OPEX systems have provided performance enhancing workflow solutions and cost-effective results to thousands of organizations worldwide. OPEX innovative equipment and technology has been efficiently and reliably handling everything from individual, single-piece items ranging in size from envelopes, documents and checks all the way through 60-pound payloads using the Perfect Pick® system. Today, OPEX systems are installed in financial services, healthcare, government, non-profit, utility, service bureau, insurance, telecommunications, and university/educational marketplaces around the world. For more information, visit