Automated Case Picking Systems: Finding the Right Fit for Your Company

Written By: Kevin Darby

It appears we have finally reached the tipping point with automated case picking where the manual costs of picking full cases, the increasing need for accuracy and the decreasing cost of automated systems are pushing businesses forward into the automated case picking realm. As companies begin to move more towards these systems, they first need to determine the best automated full case picking system for their business.

Tailoring Your System

The answer to this question is not a simple one. Like a suit that needs to be tailored to fit its owner’s unique body, an automated full case picking system needs to be tailored to the business it will serve. Most of the components of the system are standard, but the overall system itself needs to be specifically designed to meet the requirements of the company buying it.

Many mechanical and business requirements must be considered in designing these complex systems. However, every system has three main components: depalletizing/replenishment, sorting/picking, and palletizing. In order to ascertain the best method for each of these components, data must be analyzed and questions asked.

Step 1: Determine throughput requirements – The first step in this process is to figure out the overall throughput requirements of the system. This number will act as a reference point for establishing the requirements of each section.

Step 2: Analyze sales data – A company’s sales data needs to be analyzed with much greater granularity. This detailed data analysis will reveal how cases need to be palletized, picked/sorted, and finally, depalletized/replenished.

Step 3: Evaluate technologies – The next task necessitates finding the different technologies or methods which can best satisfy each section’s requirements, meaning what works best for one area of an operation might not work best for another.

Step 4: Plan the finances – The final task is to determine the level of automation that can be financially justified for each section. It may be decided that certain sections should be completely automated, some sections only partially automated, and there may even be certain areas where no automation is used.

Automated Case Picking Examples

To illustrate this basic design process, here are a couple of examples from projects I recently worked on.

1. Beer Distributor: The first example is an order fulfillment system for a large beer distributor, distributing 15 million cases annually of loose cases and carrying roughly 200 SKUs. The overall throughput of the system was 3,600-4,000 cases per hour. Upon detailed analysis of the distributor’s sales data, it was determined that 97% of the cases could be automatically palletized with a conventional or robotic layer palletizer and 3% of the cases needed to be either palletized by hand or with a robotic case palletizer. After discussion with the customer, it was decided that the best solution was to modify three conventional layer palletizers the distributor owned and add manual top-of stations downstream. The high rate of picking and sorting as well as the low number of SKUs carried by the distributor meant that all the SKUs were good candidates for a high speed case picking system.

The automated case picking technology chosen for this project was Innopick™. The Innopick™ is a high speed sortation system designed by DRL in Montreal, QE. The system uses simple drag chain conveyor, pop up diverters and servo motors to sort cases. Each lane in the system stores a single SKU. Software then releases cases in the proper sequence to build orders from the lanes onto a drag chain take-away conveyor. There are six levels of storage lanes with each level releasing 10 cases per minute.

Feeding the Innopick™ is two robotic layer depalletizing cells designed by Bastian Robotics and Bastian Automation Engineering. The vacuum head layer picking robotics can depalletize over 200 layers an hour. High labor rates and space constraints justified using this robotic depalletizing system as opposed to a forklift layer clamping system like the Tygard “Claw”.  This system was designed to specifically meet the needs of the beer distributor.

Beer Distribution Center Rendering

Example 1 – Beer Distributor

2. Soda Distributor: Other beer distributors may have similar throughput requirements but their sales data and financial justification may lead to other choices for systems components. A soda bottler order fulfillment system I worked on required the same basic sections as the beer distributor but because the bottler carried more than 400 SKUs the system needed to have two different methods for picking and sorting the cases. Only 150 of the SKUs had enough sales velocity to justify being sorted by the Innopick™ system, and so it was decided that the other 250 SKUs would be sorted by a mini-load ASRS.

Soda distribution center

Example 2 – Soda Distributor

3. Paint Distributor: A paint company I worked with had a throughput rate of only 4 cases per minute and the number of SKUs was 100. For this system neither the Innopick™ nor a mini-load ASRS could be justified. However a case picking robot mounted on a rail, picking cases from parent pallets in flow rack could be justified because the robot performed all the components of the system by itself (palletize, pick and depalletize).

As you can see not all automated full case picking systems are the same. Each system must be tailored to a company’s specific requirements. The key to a successful full case automated picking system is making sure all the components of the system are the right components for the customer.

If you are in need of an automated full case picking system I would very much like to help you find the right components for your automated system.

I have over 15 years of experience working in the material handling and production equipment industries. Most of this experience has been in the beverage industry, but I enjoy learning about new businesses and I am a quick learner. I have consulted for numerous companies; project managed large material handling projects and sold complex distribution projects.

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