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The biggest challenge in order fulfillment in the warehouse today is managing the growing number of SKUs, says Corcoran. Previously, he says, a beverage supplier might have been managing 300 individual SKUs. Over the past three years, that number has risen to around 500, and could balloon to 1,000 within the next five years. At the same time, volume will only increase between 6 and 7 percent, meaning that distributors must manage a far greater variety of product within existing facilities.
Manual systems can't get the job done, he says. Older systems require travel over greater distances within the warehouse. Automation, especially robots, can cut down on work and handle a greater variety of SKUs and packaging types. A robot, for example, can palletize many different items in a more efficient manner. And distributors can achieve full visibility to incoming orders.
"You can change dynamically on a daily basis," says Corcoran. "You can handle fast and slow movers. A robot can do these things in minutes."
Many companies view robotics as the "Holy Grail" of modern-day material handling. At the same time, Corcoran says, people will still be needed - especially automation engineers who can ensure that the robots remain up and working.
Some warehouses are moving toward a "lights-out" model, in which humans are entirely absent from the picking process. The automotive sector has been especially open to that brand of technology, says Corcoran, but retail, especially food and beverage, has been much slower to adopt it. That sector needs the flexibility of a system that isn't entirely automated, and still involves people who can quickly adjust to shifts in customer demand.
Nevertheless, says Corcoran, "automation is beginning to surge toward the warehouse side of the business. It offers the greatest amount of [return on investment]."
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Keywords: supply chain, supply chain management, inventory management, inventory control, warehouse management, WMS, retail supply chain, e-commerce supply chain, logistics management, supply chain planning
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