TABLE OF CONTENTS
Technology
6
MIN READ
October 13, 2023
October 13, 2023

Revolutionizing E-commerce with High-Throughput Automation Systems

As the world of e-commerce continues to surge, retailers need to maintain ever-higher inventory volumes and be capable of delivering products exactly how and when customers desire. This shift has led to the rise of complex high-throughput (HTP) warehouse operations. In this blog, we’ll define HTP fulfillment, explain its necessity, discuss the various integrated technologies of an HTP warehouse, and explain why AutoStore™ is an effective HTP solution.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Why has high-throughput become a trend?

In today's fast-paced world of e-commerce and global supply chains, meeting customer expectations is particularly challenging for large companies, some carrying hundreds of thousands of SKUs. As the market continues to surge, these businesses not only supply a large and varied volume of product lines but also need to offer frictionless and flexible pickup and expedited delivery services. For example, a study found that 85% of consumers will search elsewhere if delivery is slow.

This has led to the need for larger and more complex warehouse operations. Large retailers often face challenges including disrupted efficiency, high labor and real-estate costs, minimizing stockouts and errors, and distributing products rapidly.

Sophisticated, flexible, and efficient warehouse automation has become indispensable to compete. In the words of Bob Philon, who manages PUMA’s high-throughput AutoStore warehouse in Indianapolis, a high-throughput system is almost not an option if you want to survive in this modern landscape.

"It sounds brutal, but I really feel you're either moving forward and you're using technology and automation and innovation to get better, or you're going backwards," says Philon.

But even with a large automated system in place, retailers expect the need to continually expand, as industry trends point to 4% to 5% annual e-commerce growth for years to come.

What is a high-throughput system?

Generally speaking, a high-throughput fulfillment operation is one with at least 200,000 to 300,000 SKUs managed and fulfilled using a system of integrated technologies to efficiently handle, store, and move goods.

This type of system leverages advanced technology, including robotics and software, to optimize the flow of products and information throughout the facility. The primary goal is to increase the speed and productivity, accuracy, and overall efficiency of warehouse operations.

Key components and features of a robust high-throughput warehouse automation system typically include some combination of the following:

Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS):

An AS/RS system automatically stores and retrieves goods in a cube-based formation, such as the AutoStore system, or in vertical racks. This technology optimizes space utilization and drastically reduces the time required to access products, ensuring rapid order fulfillment.

Warehouse Management System (WMS):

Robust WMS software is also at the core of a high-throughput automation system. It orchestrates and optimizes all warehouse operations, including inventory management, order processing, and task allocation.

Automated Material Handling Systems:

These systems include conveyor systems, sortation systems, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) that transport goods within the warehouse. They can move products quickly and precisely, reducing the need for manual labor.

Conveyor Systems:

Conveyor systems are a staple in high-throughput warehouses. They efficiently transport products from one location to another, eliminating the need for manual carrying or pushing of carts. They are especially beneficial for moving items with consistent shapes and sizes.

Robotic Picking Systems:

Warehouse robots equipped with advanced computer vision and gripping technology can pick items from shelves, bins, or pallets with remarkable speed and precision. They excel in handling high-mix, low-volume orders common in e-commerce.

Sortation Systems:

Sorters efficiently organize products by diverting them to the correct packing or shipping area based on predefined criteria such as destination, size, or weight. This reduces errors and speeds up the packing process.

Inventory Control Systems:

These systems use real-time data to track the location and quantity of items in the warehouse. They help minimize errors and improve inventory accuracy.

Data Analytics and Reporting:

Advanced analytics tools help warehouse managers monitor performance, identify bottlenecks, and make data-driven decisions to improve efficiency further.

Safety Measures:

Safety features such as sensors, alarms, and fail-safes are crucial to protect both workers and equipment in a high-throughput warehouse environment.

What are the benefits of a high-throughput warehouse automation system?

A high-throughput warehouse automation system aims to reduce labor costs and speed up order fulfillment, making it essential for businesses looking to streamline their logistics and meet the demands of modern e-commerce and distribution channels.

Order accuracy is amongst the important benefits to a very large warehouse. Automation minimizes the risk of human errors, ensuring that the right products are picked, packed, and shipped, leading to improved customer satisfaction.

Why is order accuracy critical to high-throughput warehouses?

To understand why accuracy is critical to large fulfillment operations, consider the stark reality for a large warehouse with a 2% error rate (98% accuracy). For an average-sized business, every error amounts to a costly $36 when factoring in transportation, repackaging, and restocking of merchandise. The risk is much higher for a large business with extensive SKU counts, where mishandling errors have an enormous compounding effect:

• 6,000,000 units/year = $4.4 million cost of pick error

• 1,000,000 units/year = $728,000 cost of pick error

What technologies do high-throughput warehouses use?

To achieve maximum efficiency and productivity in a high-throughput warehouse, it's essential to understand some basic components, how they work, and how to integrate them seamlessly with other machinery and systems. High-throughput warehouses typically use the following:

Warehouse Management Systems (WMS):

WMS software acts as the brain of the operation, coordinating and optimizing all warehouse activities. It interfaces with automation systems to ensure orders are processed efficiently.

Material Handling Equipment:

AGVs and conveyor systems can work in harmony with robotic picking systems and AS/RS to ensure products move seamlessly through the warehouse. Coordination between these systems is key to avoiding bottlenecks.

Data and Analytics:

Utilize data from automation systems to monitor performance, identify areas for improvement, and make data-driven decisions for process optimization.

Order Management Systems (OMS):

OMS should integrate with WMS and automation systems to facilitate real-time order tracking and ensure orders are fulfilled accurately and on time.

How is AutoStore used in high-throughput warehouses?

For large warehouses, AutoStore is the centerpiece of fulfillment operations, not only for its ability to condense and move inventory with speed and precision, but also because it’s interoperable with almost any third-party software or hardware. This is valuable in a complex layout where several components must interconnect and work harmoniously.  

In a hypothetical example, AutoStore interfaces with an ERP system such as SAP that manages and tracks all incoming and available inventory. The systems communicate to induct and organize goods within the cubic storage Grid. Order data is passed to WMS software to coordinate and optimize various types of machinery, including conveyors, AGVs, and piece-picking robots, to ensure products move seamlessly through the warehouse and avoid bottlenecks. AutoStore Robots retrieve orders from the storage Grid and deliver them via Bins to workstations, or Ports. Worker removes items from Bins, and then pack and label them for shipping.  

This is only a basic example of how a high throughput AutoStore might work. Components can be added, as necessary, to augment speed, accuracy, and efficiency. For example, OMS can be integrated with the WMS to facilitate real-time order tracking and ensure orders are fulfilled accurately and on time. Pick- and put-to-light systems can be installed at Ports to give workers a visual queue for which items to remove and where to place them.  

What types of AutoStore technology are made for high-throughput fulfillment?

AutoStore produces a number of technologies that are effective for high-throughput fulfillment. Tools are designed and optimized to support the entire product life-cycle, from design and installation, to construction, commissioning, startup, and operation of a high-throughput facility.

Below, Product Management Director Anders Mathisen discusses the rise of large e-commerce fulfillment. Click here for more of his insights.


Design & Installation

AutoStore Grid Designer and Simulator: Our latest iterations of our proprietary software enable Grid design and simulation of up to 500 x 500 cells and 1 million Bins. They support design guidelines and support for new components specifically designed for large operations.

Grid Level: Having a stable and flat Grid is paramount to install AutoStore, but this can be challenging for very large installations with concrete slab flooring that sometimes measures more than 500,000 sf. Mounted onto any AutoStore Robot, Grid Level performs an in-depth measurement for flatness and detects biases such as incline, peaks, and dumps on top of the Grid in a detailed analysis.

Commissioning

Flexible Grid Cell™  is a Grid component designed to offer high resilience for large-scale AutoStore systems. Temperature variations can have physical effects on the Grid aluminum tracks, skewing the structure. Flexible Grid Cell counters the effects of thermal expansion, ensuring system stability and uptime for large grids.  

Grid Bracer™ makes it easier to construct a Grid by eliminating the need to attach the aluminum Grid framework to pillars or walls. The Grid Bracer provides operational support to the AutoStore system and enables the Grid to be self-supporting. This added value allows customers to maximize storage space and reduce the system installation lead time and cost.

AutoStore Grid Operations

B1™ Robot: High-speed Robot suitable for up to 24/7 operations and ultra-high throughout. Work together in harmony to optimize productivity.  

FusionPort™: An ergonomic, high-speed workstation to encourage worker retention and maintain productivity. Features two Bin openings, integrated pick-to-light, and safety hatches that stay closed until Bins are ready to pick.

Sporting goods retailer XXL set a throughput record of 480 Bins per hour using FusionPort, a high-speed, ergonomically advanced workstation with two Bin openings for rapid picking.

FusionPort Staging™: Allows operators to pick and stage orders using one workstation and store them right inside the Grid, eliminating the need to use floor space.

RelayPort™: Workstation that creates a rapid flow of Bins. Minimum exchange time of less than 3 seconds and capable of handling up to 650 Bins per hour.

Router™ control software: Continuous improvement on Router ensures same efficiency and reliability when system scales up to new sizes. Recent improvements include optimization in calculation time and routing, support for 1,000+ Robots in one Grid, and support for 500 cells in each direction.

Bin ResQ™ Robot: Helps customers quickly retrieve overfilled or faulty Bins. AutoStore users won’t have to physically enter the system for Bin retrieval and the system will continue running while Bins are being retrieved. This ensures safe & trouble-free retrieval and allows customers to achieve higher system uptime.

Service & Monitoring

Unify Analytics™ software provides an added layer of intelligence by collecting real-time system performance data used for identifying operational bottlenecks. It fully automates the traditional way of collecting and analyzing real-time AutoStore log data so you can make data-driven business decisions to optimize your business performance and fuel growth.

AutoStore Console™ is an easy-to-use interface for monitoring performance. In response to our growing base of HTP customers, Console has undergone improvements to its incident handling capabilities and communication with system operators. This includes better presentation of events and error codes, action and resolution for issues on Grid, and blocking off of cells before any system stops are required.  

Who is using high-throughput AutoStore systems and why?

Larger, high-growth businesses use AutoStore for multiple reasons. Chief among them is its reliability (average global uptime is 99.7%) and modularity, enabling them to expand Grids while maintaining fulfillment operations. This eliminates the need to acquire more warehouse space or commence costly warehouse renovations and additions. But a key advantage for HTP facilities is AutoStore’s 99.99% accuracy rate.

With AutoStore virtually eliminating pick errors, businesses experiencing even a modest 1% to 1.5% error reduction have substantially accelerated their return on investment (ROI).  

  • Ingenuity – A THG Company, extends its operational services externally in the form of fulfilment and courier management services both locally and globally from multiple facilities and for many different category verticals. In one of THG’s UK facilities, it houses one of the biggest and most efficient Autostore Grids in the world, operating with over 30 different brands. THG has successfully received and dispatched 320,000 orderlines per day from this facility, with the capacity to achieve more, virtually eliminating picking errors while substantially reducing labor requirements. They achieved ROI in 24 months.
  • Geodis, an American transport and logistics provider, uses AutoStore to move up to 400,000 order lines per day for omni-channel fulfillment. They are on track to achieve ROI in under two years.  
  • PUMA, whose motto is “Forever Faster,” uses its AutoStore in Indianapolis to fulfill more than 100,000 wholesale and e-commerce orders within the same day in the United States, covering all their 80,000+ SKUs with 99.8% accuracy. The company envisioned a 5-year payback period on the AutoStore system but its ROI in only 12 months.
PUMA's AutoStore Grid is the largest AutoStore in North America and uses the B1 Robot for rapid e-commerce fulfillment.
  • Boozt, a European fashion retailer with a fleet of 1,150+ Robots, has fulfilled single orders in less than 50 seconds and used AutoStore to continually scale, as needed. Boozt implemented its first AutoStore in 2017 and added capacity over the years in response to a 200% revenue growth while decreasing their fulfillment cost ratio.
  • British grocer ASDA, part of Walmart Group, achieved 99.8% picking accuracy and doubled productivity at its Lutterworth, England facility that operates two AutoStore Grids.

Conclusion

In a world where e-commerce is skyrocketing, high-throughput automation systems have become the linchpin of success for retailers, ushering in a new era of efficiency and precision. The need to meet customer expectations for rapid and accurate deliveries has led to the emergence of sophisticated high-throughput (HTP) warehouse operations. These operations are driven by integrated technologies that optimize the handling, storage, and movement of goods within vast warehouses. One of its most critical advantages is the enhancement of order accuracy, a cornerstone of customer satisfaction. With a 2% error rate potentially costing large warehouses millions, the importance of minimizing errors cannot be overstated.

Integration is the cornerstone of these systems, where WMS act as the central hub, orchestrating operations with various components such as material handling equipment and order management systems. AutoStore takes center stage in the HTP landscape due to its ability to adapt and interoperate with third-party software and hardware, facilitating seamless coordination of all elements.

AutoStore offers a range of technologies designed for high-throughput fulfillment, from design and installation tools to advanced robotics and software that monitor and optimize system performance. The flexibility and modularity of AutoStore make it an attractive choice for high-growth businesses, allowing them to expand their Grids without extensive warehouse renovations and providing an impressive 99.99% accuracy rate. Real-world success stories, like THG, Geodis, PUMA, Boozt, and ASDA, illustrate how AutoStore has revolutionized their operations, achieving rapid returns on investment while consistently delivering accurate and efficient order fulfillment.

In conclusion, high-throughput automation systems, driven by technologies like AutoStore, are reshaping the landscape of e-commerce and fulfillment. These systems offer a lifeline for retailers seeking to navigate the challenges of the modern supply chain, where speed, accuracy, and adaptability are paramount. As e-commerce continues to evolve, embracing high-throughput automation is not just a choice; it's a mandate for staying ahead in the ever-competitive world of retail.

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