Imagining the e-commerce fashion fulfilment centre of the future

If we took a tour of a fashion distribution or fulfilment centre of the future, what would it look like? It may not be a scene from a sci-fi movie exactly, but we would definitely expect to see more robotic technology driving some of the facility’s processes. Automation technology will be key in achieving ever greater efficiency and end-to-end optimisation. Here’s how the fashion distribution centre of the future could look.

By Sandra Lückmann

 

The emerging robot

The vision of the future fashion logistics facility is that robotic technologies will achieve efficiencies beyond our wildest imaginations. The extent to which robotic technology will transform fashion distribution centre operations has yet to be fully explored by the industry. But logistics robotics are certain to reshape and refine automation to achieve higher levels of efficiency at lower operating costs.

Robots are already a familiar sight in warehouses, often automating what were once heavily labour intensive processes. In some industrialised countries, they are now a must, given acute manual labour shortages and the added challenge of meeting ever increasing throughput targets with no additional available space.

Emerging robotics have the potential to create multi-functional handling systems in which every process is fully automated from end to end. We have already witnessed the start of this development. The technology involving robots to transport items is now highly developed. And while solutions using robots to grip or pick up items are still in infant stage, some gripping robots are also now in place.

Let’s look at the tasks that robotic technology will transform so operators can become less dependent on manual handling.

 

Automating the inbound process

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The end-to-end optimisation begins with the inbound process. Increasing automation in this area paves the way for robots to step in. Some robots will unload and handle bulk items from trucks, containers or roller cages. Other robots will automatically singulate them by aligning and evenly spacing them on the inbound conveyor belt. Some will perform the label application – and in the future, some robots might even be able to do the quality check of returned items. AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) will have a role here too by handling out-of-gauge items as part of the inbound process.

The implementation of robot technology could potentially eliminate the need for warehouses to source or train skilled labour for these monotonous and manual tasks, and allow trained operators to focus on other functions. After all, automation is not a question of getting rid of people. It’s more about redeploying resources to more interesting, complex tasks, thereby ensuring their health and well being.

And where expensive night-shift work is required for a warehouse’s operation, robots will undertake the same work at the same cost. This is irrespective of the time of day or year, or whether they are asked to work to a very late cut-off window.

 

Less touches in picking and packing

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Next, automating the picking and packing processes will significantly increase the operational efficiency of the pick towers.

In a fully automated e-commerce warehouse, a shuttle or miniload system will be a solution for efficient storage, sequenced picking from trays, totes and varying sized cartons or even the retrieval of pallets. These technologies are already in place in warehouses.

With robotic automation, it is not only the picking process that will be transformed. Instead of manual packing for the final destination, robots will automatically pack items into cartons.

And taking it one step further, an AGV, or “mobile robot”, could be the best solution for transport movements within the warehouse. They could be used in side processes that involve lower-volume or fast-moving items, for example, where it doesn’t necessarily make sense to install a conveyor.

Achieving end-to-end optimisation

By integrating multiple automated processes into single systems, future fashion distribution and fulfilment centres will be delivering end-to-end optimisation. The storing, sorting, conveying, packing and shipping functions will be controlled by single warehouse control systems (WCS). This centralised control will ensure optimum routing and provide clear overviews of all items and processes.

The performance and efficiency of the WCS will be gauged through the use of data analytics. Data gathered in real time from system sensors and equipment will be analysed to improve and predict maintenance, operations and management needs.

Conclusion

Robotic technology will be instrumental in creating the fashion distribution or fulfilment centre of the future. But there’s still a lot of ground to be covered before robots become a permanent feature of material handling processes in warehouses. When companies invest the time and money in areas such as improved gripping technology, we will expect to see much development over the long-term in fashion intralogistics. The seamless integration of robotic technologies will enable fashion facilities to automate and optimise nearly every aspect of the fashion fulfilment process.

 

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