Super-fast Fulfillment


Cutting fulfillment time was an important goal when Sunstar, a manufacturer of oral care and dental supply products, worked with Numina Group to automate a new manufacturing and distribution facility in Schaumburg, Ill.

The DC went live in July 2015, says Dan Hanrahan, chief operating officer of Numina Group, in Woodridge, Ill.

Among other components, the automation solution that Numina Group designed and implemented for Sunstar includes: voice-directed picking; hands-free barcode scanning; an automated conveyor system; barcode-based order routing; and in-line systems for weighing packed cartons, checking their dimensions, and printing and applying labels. The system uses Numina’s warehouse execution and control software (WCS), the Real-time Distribution System, to connect the materials handling equipment to warehouse management software within Sunstar’s enterprise resource planning system.

That warehouse management module was good at keeping track of inventory. “But Sunstar didn’t have sophisticated picking automation,” Hanrahan says.

For example, after picking many individual items for an order, a worker used to carry a full tote to a packing station. There, a packer would determine the best-sized shipping carton to use, and then figure out how to fit a mix of cartons and single items into that box.

Today, the WCS releases waves of orders to a voice-directed picking system, which tells the picker what products to retrieve, from which locations. It also chooses the best-sized shipping carton, and instructs the operator on how to pick items directly to that box, as a conveyor routes the carton from pick zone to pick zone.

Next, a conveyor takes the carton through an in-line scanning and weighing system. That technology confirms that the order is correct, based on its weight. When the carton moves to the packing area, an operator inserts a packing slip, plus dunnage, if needed. Another in-line weighing and dimensioning system captures data needed to print a shipping manifest, and the carton is ready to go.

Automation in the new facility has cut the time it takes to process orders in half. “Sunstar is doing 100 percent additional throughput with equal labor,” Hanrahan says.


One of the more striking variations on warehouse automation is the robot. Amazon placed a big bet on robots in 2012 when it acquired manufacturer Kiva Systems, renaming the new business unit Amazon Robotics. Amazon uses Kiva robots to transport racks of merchandise to human pickers, speeding operations in the e-commerce giant’s fulfillment centers.

Among other companies looking to deploy autonomous mobile machines for fast fulfillment is Fetch Robotics, based in San Jose, Calif. Fetch is working with several potential customers to test two models, named “Freight” and “Fetch.”

The units are designed, in part, to cut the time pickers spend walking back and forth in a warehouse. “When workers are taking goods from one place in the warehouse to somewhere else, they’re underutilized,” says Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics. Robots let human workers concentrate on more valuable tasks.

In one application, called Follow Pick, Freight follows human pickers equipped with an electronic or paper pick list. Freight carries a tote, which the pickers fill with product. “Once they’re done with the pick, they can send that robot away, and a new robot will be automatically deployed to them,” Wise says.

In the second solution, Fetch and Freight, a warehouse deploys a team of Fetch robots to pick items, each within a certain zone. Freight robots move among them, collecting filled totes. “The robot knows what it’s supposed to be picking, and does it 24/7,” Wise says.

Because a machine doesn’t take lunch or bathroom breaks, it can do 90 minutes more work per shift than a human picker. And robot sidekicks make human workers more productive. “People using the robots are not getting as fatigued, because they’re not walking six miles every day,” Wise says.

Fetch and Freight use a different technology to navigate around a warehouse than do their counterparts at Amazon. The Amazon robots find their way by reading barcoded stickers placed in a grid across the floor. Fetch Robotics uses active sensing. “We sense the walls, the shelves, and the entire environment,” Wise says. “Then we build a map to navigate through that environment.” Fetch Robotics designed its robots to work with as little physical modification to the warehouse as possible, she adds.

Potential customers have been testing the robots in manufacturing and fulfillment operations. The tests haven’t gone on long enough to provide solid data, but Wise predicts that Fetch and Freight will make operations significantly faster. “We hope to see a 30- to 40-percent bump in throughput,” she says.