Mega-trends such as digital transformation, urbanization and demographic change are creating significant challenges for retailers, and make it imperative – but difficult – to achieve differentiation in an increasingly competitive environment. This calls for fast, reliable and high-quality delivery, in conjunction with extreme flexibility – which in turn means more complex logistics. As a result, warehouse processes need to be lean and agile to safeguard performance. It is the only way for retailers and distributors to be able to manage the key demands of e-commerce: frequent changes to the product portfolio, seasonal fluctuations, super-fast shipment and ongoing product availability.
Finding the right degree of automation
Automation is key to success, but it is all a question of the right degree – and that depends on the specific use case. Because no two retailers are the same, and the use of multiple distribution channels varies from industry to industry. When it comes to consumer electronics, books and other media, online sales and automated distribution are far more common than with furniture, for example. In the latter instance, customers want to experience the product up-close and in person – so a conventional physical store remains a vital element in any omni-channel strategy. But in this sector as well, things are becoming ever more digital, and consumer behavior is changing. For instance, virtual reality will make it possible for customers to “try out” new furniture within their own home before making a purchase.
Automated processes have the potential to deliver greater efficiency than their manual equivalents. In addition, it is possible to apply partial automation to manual workstations to create more ergonomic working conditions. As a result, it is common for retailers to leverage automation for their “base load” requirements, but to also deploy robots to assist human workers and improve their performance. They also frequently resort to manual labor to cope with peaks in demand generated by promotions or seasonal influences: people remain a reliable way of ensuring flexible handling and efficient picking of individual orders and returns.
Ergonomics is all-important
Partial automation is therefore generally the best approach, especially in terms of ergonomic conditions. The move towards goods-to-person processes not only reduces the distances pickers have to travel, but also raises quality, allowing zero-error picking, for example by means of SSI SCHAEFER’s pick to tote workstations. New technologies make it possible to respond dynamically to expanding and increasingly complex product portfolios, and to accommodate ever-changing processes. The result is partially automated, ergonomic workstations that offer employees the greatest possible support – and ensure maximum quality.
“Lifting aids, easy access to containers and other carriers, and the deployment of robots enable ergonomic processes and support our employees.”
Markus Schellinger, Director Technology & Solutions Retail & Wholesale at SSI SCHAEFER