We've all witnessed first-hand Amazon's lightning-fast delivery of products of all types, including exceptionally expensive, large or hard to come by for other UK vendors. Most of us will have wondered by now how they manage to fulfill these continuous orders for a whopping 300 items per second at their peak, and most importantly, how they can uphold their position and retain all that profit.
What can you learn from the big players
Whatever you call it, throughput centre, distribution centre, warehouse or fulfillment centre, it is the foundation stone to a successful operation, and all companies aspiring to follow in Amazon's footsteps should implement top-of-the-line logistic practices. Admittedly, Amazon has had a bit of help from the Kiva mobile-robotic fulfillment system, which allows pickers in the warehouse to remain in the same position throughout the process, and robotized shelving units come to them with the required products, following an organized, pre-set pattern reminiscent of the movements on a chessboard. Add to that the newly adopted automated locker function, which allows British customers to order online and pick up their order from a chosen locker, located anywhere in the UK, and you have the secret to their next-day deliveries: good warehouse management and freeing up delivery slots by allowing customers to collect. Of course, they also have state-of-the-art product sorters like the Vanderlande Crossorter cross-belt sorter that companies like Schuh have been investing in for optimum outbound performance.
On a smaller scale warehouses pallet handlers like pallet exchangers are used to efficiently handle the products coming into warehouses. Whatever the technology, though, outlining the company's best practices and constantly evaluating requirements are crucial to achieving performance and providing top-quality service. Most companies outline best practices to ensure that logistics are flawless and lean, and most of these practices are very similar among Amazon-type businesses. They will most likely include advanced shipping notifications, or automated notices sent by suppliers to a company in advance of the deliveries, with expected arrival time. This allows the company to then schedule inbound receipts to optimize dock utilization. Additionally, the company will implement vendor compliance programs in which they ask vendors to comply with certain labeling requirements, standard case quantities etc. When the merchandise arrives, logging it in should be a thorough and efficient process with the help of automatic data collection technology, via barcode and radio frequency identification. The same kind of technology can be used for picking processes. Planning picking waves beforehand, adjusting shifts and adapting to change, by transferring pickers from full pallet to case picking during a surge, for instance, is also an option. Most efficient organizations will tell you that they scan products as they move within the warehouse, from one department to another and that they are keen to record every process in the chain.
Invest for future growth
Efficient picking methods are the secret to outbound speed. Companies that do not have Amazon's ability to invest in cutting-edge technology can use hands-free order selection devices: wrist-mounted RF units, voice picks, and pick-or-put-to-light order fulfillment systems. Hand-held RF readers and printers, pick-to-light (where you scan a barcode on a box, then read the digital display unit showing order details) and voice recognition technology (where you pick using instructions sent via RF from the company's ERP - order management software), save time and money, and some companies will use all of these devices in a bundle. Also, minimizing handling along the way by picking directly to the carton rather than to a tote which also minimize the number of picking stations, using print-and-apply types of labeling systems to print labels on the go, as well as weighing on the go, and also having automated sealing stations, all maximize output and minimize cost.
Moreover, the loading dock can benefit from having partial orders come in at short intervals so that the orders are never static. The picking are can be improved by using automatic replenishment systems to ensure that items are never out of stock and pickers don't waste valuable time searching in vain. Companies could be tempted to also try cross-docking, which can include different practices, such as sourcing back-ordered products from elsewhere, sending orders from the supplier straight to the end-of-line customer, reverse line picking etc.
But ultimately, the warehouse and how the facility is managed is the priority, which is why automatic cycle count as opposed to physical inventory, dynamic slotting achieved by having best-selling items closer to shipping areas, and good warehouse layout which minimizes travel times between picking locations by regularly monitoring storage locations and picking travel times, are the practices that require minimal effort and produce the best result, when investments in technology are not an option.