Part of optimizing any logistics operation is to make sure that you are not incurring additional and lasting costs on the path to speeding up your rate of fulfillment. The goal is to move more product through your system and out the door – but you also must watch expenses.

Fulfillment Optimization is Not an Impossible Task

Zach Gomez, Senior Director, Global Logistics Business | Realtime Robotics

As any logistics manager already knows, industrial automation is hard, time-consuming and expensive. There are so many variables that need to be perfectly coordinated for you to be successful. Just one thing going wrong can quickly create a snowball effect that can lock up your ability to fulfill orders for hours – or worse. 

The key success factor in running a fulfillment operation is rate. Well, to be more exact, it is rate vs. errors; how fast and efficiently can you operate your warehouse – your receiving, picking, packing, shipping and returns operations – without causing a breakdown in service. Optimizing your rate of accomplishing these tasks efficiently and safely will translate into an improved ability to deliver product to consumers – and an improved bottom line.

Part of optimizing any logistics operation is to make sure that you are not incurring additional and lasting costs on the path to speeding up your rate of fulfillment. The goal is to move more product through your system and out the door – but you also must watch expenses. 

With the sudden and immediate impact that the pandemic has had on the supply chain – both with safety protocol adoption affecting the process and the increased demand for online businesses to fulfill more orders even faster – many companies had to throw whatever fixes they could at the problem in the hopes of riding out the storm. With there seeming to be a light at the end of the tunnel as vaccinations increase, now is the time to correct any rushed changes and ensure your logistics are ready to handle future growth.


Each Operation is Unique

Each fulfillment operation is different from the next – some have only a small physical space to work with, others have a large workforce, while others are using as many robots as possible to move the process along. There will never be a 100% standard answer or stereotypical setup that works for every operation, which is why it is so important to review the common ways that the fulfillment process can become slowed or run less efficiently than you had hoped and see which apply to you (and which ones you had not thought of yet).

To kickstart the optimization process, ask the following questions of your logistics operation: 

  • Do we run at peak efficiency already?

  • Where do we experience slowdowns, and how often?

  • What are the causes of our delays, slowdowns and work stoppages?

  • How quickly do we recover from stoppages?

  • Do we need more employees? How many employees can we really add before expenses chip away at our profit margin?

  • Do we need new machinery and equipment to be more efficient? Can we afford it? Is there more we can do with the machinery and equipment we have? 

  • How about warehouse space – do we have enough? Could we be using the space we have in a better way? 


Once you have a handle on this information, then it is time to start problem-solving. Typically, there is not one sole area that is causing a logistics operation to experience slowdowns; it is a combination of several situations that combine to create an inefficient, costly problem for your organization. 


Paths to Optimization

Once you have identified areas where your process may be less than optimal, then the next step is, naturally, to make improvements. Let us examine each of the key areas where the fulfillment process can break down and what can be done to solve the problems:

  • Geography – One of the major limitations on your fulfillment efficiency can be the geographic layout of your warehouse/facilities. The location of equipment, human workstations, robot workstations, and where products and parts are located can all positively or negatively affect your logistics success. 
    To optimize your layout, look at the work that is being done and how your employees and robots coordinate and cycle through their tasks. Are there instances where the process is slowed down because one must wait for the other to complete a task? Or to prevent a possible collision? If this is the case, then re-routing employee and robot pathways may help. A robot’s programming can also be altered to account for their surroundings and avoid collisions, speeding up the process.
    Product/part locations may come into play as well. If the picking process has never been comprehensively planned out – and has evolved as a part of your company’s growth, then there may be instances of cross-over or inefficient picking paths that should be reconsidered. Product SKUs may need to be re-organized to make picking easier. To fully optimize, look at the work done on the floor as a whole, and see if there are more natural and logical paths for your employees and robots to take to accomplish their tasks with less potential for friction or collision.
    As a part of this process, some logistics managers may find they need more space to optimize operations, but many will quickly see that a reorganization of their layout and workflow does the trick.

  • Simulation – Simulation is a must as you work to better plot out your facility/warehouse floor. You can get information about how your industrial automation cell performs before building it. This allows you to have high confidence in the key parameters, such as throughput rate, very early in the process. You can optimize before anything is built, adjusting as needed to accommodate the necessary components, decreasing cycle time and footprint. If something isn’t quite working, you have the flexibility to make changes and see the impact they would have on performance. Simulation software allows you to quickly model your desirable setup without the costly implementation of every modification in real life.

  • Robots – Optimizing the robots in use within your facilities will also be key to accomplishing a better, more efficient fulfillment setup. Are your robots programmed to understand their surroundings to prevent collisions? Or do you have to space them out to make sure they do not encounter each other. Could you fit additional robots in your facility, allowing them to improve the speed of your fulfillment process? 
    Enabling your robots to work side-by-side with each other can lead to a faster overall cycle time. In fact, because of the awareness programming, it can also quickly cut down on collisions and errors that cause work stoppages, damaged goods and losses in efficiency. 

  • Machinery – This one seems like a no-brainer, but it is important to stick to a service plan for your machinery and robotics, to make sure everything is operating at optimal efficiency. In many cases, maintenance and regular updates are left until there is a breakdown or a problem that surfaces. Like regular oil changes and checkups help maintain your car, keeping to a strict service and maintenance schedule, no matter how inconvenient it seems, will pay off in the long-term with less downtime and fewer disasters.

  • Work Stoppages – Speaking of breakdowns and disasters, one of the easiest ways to improve efficiency is to cut down on the number of work stoppages. These can be as simple a fix as re-routing employees and robots or enhancing the programming of your robots to be aware of their surroundings and not collide with something on their path. If there are repeated problems, there may need to be larger fixes, such as re-orchestrating the layout of your facility/warehouse, and/or re-working the workflows of your employees and robotics. 
    Ask your team if the products/parts are in the correct, most logical places for continued workflow success. Are there any other recurring issues, such as pallets breaking, or product dropped on its way to being shipped out? It could be something as simple as moving final assembly closer to shipping is the answer. The bottom line is to review, look for patterns and adapt. Do not just hope stoppages will end – actively adjust your fulfillment process to end them.

  • Monitoring and Alerting – Installing a monitoring and alerting system will be extremely helpful on your path to fulfillment optimization. Utilize the latest technology to monitor your facilities/warehouse and automatically alert you of potential problems early, before there is a costly disaster, large amounts of product destroyed – or worse, people hurt.

  • Turnaround Time – To be fully optimized, you want your operations to cycle through quickly, i.e., once an order is set, you need all parties to move on to servicing the next, and the next, and so on. In the operational review phase (where you asked the initial questions of your fulfillment process), you will have uncovered how quickly your employees and robots are able to cycle. 
    Are there visible delays, such as robots needing to clear an area before the next can enter? Or robots finishing before the other has completed their tasks? If your robots were able to be recovered and redeployed faster, would that make things more efficient? Are there tasks better suited to people? Recognizing these patterns and acting on them will help make your fulfillment operations both efficient and cost-effective.


Fulfillment Optimization is Not Impossible

It may seem like an insurmountable task at first, but it is not. It really comes down to reviewing and awareness of your overall fulfillment process – and then acting on your observations. Utilize the latest technologies to help you simulate your ideal facility and workflow, and to monitor the daily operations for potential issues, for example. As you dig in and start to make improvements in one area, you will see that it naturally leads to another related area, helping the overall process to become more efficient.





About Zach Gomez
Zach Gomez has built a career by introducing disruptive technologies to companies around the world.  In fields such as collaborative robotics, exoskeletons, vision, and AI/ML/RL, Zach has focused on helping customers maximize the value of these technologies and drive innovation throughout their organizations. He is currently the Sr. Director, Global Logistics Business, at Realtime Robotics focused on helping customers deploy industrial robots easier than ever before to meet the growing demand of the logistics market.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of ManufacturingTomorrow

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