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SKU Picking in the DC Goes Mobile

FKI Logistex's mobile pick-to-light system speeds up the processes of finding and picking slow moving items in a warehouse.
Oct 23, 2002Oct. 23, 2002 - In many distribution centers, up to 50 percent of the inventory is made up for SKUs that account for only five percent of the picking activity. And often, slow-moving items are dispersed throughout the DC, forcing employees to make long walks around the entire facility just to fill a single order.

Real Time Solutions, an Emeryville, Calif.-based subsidiary of FKI Logistex, has come up with a solution: EASYpick GoKarts. Essentially a mobile pick-to-light system, the carts use a wireless local area network (LAN) and short-range RF scanners to enable a single employee to fill several orders simultaneously. The company is developing voice and RFID-enabled technology that would provide even greater speed and accuracy.

Typically, some orders coming into the distribution center include slow-moving SKUs that are not stored on flow-racks with pick-to-light systems that highlight the individual items to be picked and packed. An employee is given a reusable plastic container and sent to walk the aisles of the facility to find the items.

With the GoKarts system, an employee would typically be given eight or more orders to fill simultaneously. Plastic containers are put on the cart and the driver is given instructions, via an RF terminal on the cart. The terminal instructs the driver where to stop in the facility and provides a list of items to be picked at each location.

The carts can be manufactured up to 66 inches in length, 36 inches wide and 79 inches high. They use polyurethane casters and wheels with a 360° turning radius, allowing pickers to maneuver in aisles as narrow as four feet across.

As the operator picks items and scans their bar codes or RFID tags, lights flash to inform him which container to put the item in, and a display on the back of the cart tells him how many items go in each container. When he has picked and placed all of the items at that stop, he presses a "pick complete" button to inform the computer system that he's done. The RF terminal then instructs him where to go next and the process is repeated.

The system is paperless and is designed to increase the efficiency of the employees in the warehouse. The carts can be tailored to an individual company's needs. Liz Claiborne has 48 small boxes on a cart to pick jewelry and accessories. Other retailers might use eight or ten containers. The lighting system and RF terminal have to be customized for each installation. Real Time Solutions also provides the software for the system and does integration, where necessary, with existing warehouse management systems.

The improvement in productivity depends on the size of the distribution center, the type of product and other factors, according to Lagaly. "At Advance Auto Parts, they can now make one pass and do 10 orders instead of one," he says. "Because the carts assist that person, he can pick more quickly and more accurately. The labor savings have been enormous. They are picking 460 line items per hour, compared to probably less than 100 before."

RFID could improve the picking system even further. Most of the time, goods picked are put into a reusable plastic container. By tagging those items and tying them to a carton to be shipped, the operator could further reduce errors, and if the shipping carton is tagged, receiving could be automated at the store. "RFID would work perfectly in that situation," says Lagaly.

He adds that RFID could be even more powerful when combined with voice technology within the distribution center. "If you get RFID splayed all over the warehouse and the SKUs, we could really do some amazing things," he says. "We've actually tested the technology and are ready to roll it out at the right time."

Zebra Technologies has already developed a system that uses RFID to communicate information about prescription drugs. Blind patients can use a scanner to read an RFID tag and the terminal will use voice technology to communicate what the drug is, when it should be taken and in what dosage. Imagine a warehouse where the items literally tell staff when they should be picked and where they should be shipped. It may not be that for off.
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