In spite of the many advances that have been made in the operation of distribution centers over the last few decades, a large number of distribution centers are not exactly fully automated. Although they have evolved to keep up with the quicker pace of the retail business and adapt better to the options of flexible fulfillment, the gap is clearly felt.
As a matter of fact, some of the areas in a distribution center are still highly labor intensive and, consequently, error-prone. In this blog post, we review some of the major tasks in a DC and how RFID can provide an easy solution to them.
- Picking and packing – While a lot of the distribution centers have become heavily automated (picture Wal-Mart, Amazon),most of them still continue with manual processes. A common example would be picking orders. If you have worked as a picker at any point in your life, you know that most of the processes at work today are no different from the ones that were in place a couple of decades ago. The procedure consists of the following steps – you print out an order, run down the aisle, find the goods, bring the items back to the area, pack it up and ship it out. Apart from the fact that this is time-consuming, there are a number of opportunities for untoward errors. This is not counting the fact that there are rush shipments and omnichannel shipments, which have to be picked up at the individual level before being shipped to the customer directly. It is easy to understand as to why the problems still persist. With the overwhelming number of order that pickers have to deal with, it is surprising that they achieve the accuracy they do.
- Solution – Managing the accuracy of shipments through exceptions is not much of a solution, as you are just adding labor to the overall process and only examining a small percentage of the total boxes. Even some of the automated solutions, like light systems which can point out the general areas where a picker can find the ordered item, do not eliminate the scavenger hunt completely. However, RFID does, it enables the staff at a distribution center to manage process automation with order variability. Using RFID technology, pickers can find items quickly, reserve them and confirm the order. They can juggle multiple orders at the same time in a path-efficient manner. If the customers are looking for a good fit and a smooth finish, RFID can help with the automation of shipping labels and choose the right-sized boxes for more efficient packaging.
- Inbound receiving to distribution centers – While some of the errors are an inherent part of the picking process, others originate in the factory. They are likely to get carried downstream. They might even end up in limbo if they are identified in the distribution center and put away in quarantine.
To solve this problem, you have new hardware systems, called tunnels, which can be connected to the conveyor systems to verify that the items in a bulk shipment are completely accurate. You can easily identify and triage the errors before your shipment leaves the center, thereby making the necessary corrections and preventing added time and cost.
Shipments that are valid generate automatic and advanced notifications, after which they are sent for delivery. We also talked about how a lot of the retailers are amping up source-RFID tagging at a shipment or an item level. This can help them verify inbound ASNs against the shipments' physical contents, and provide alerts, like bells, alarms or lights to direct the focus of your staff on exception handling.
If it is not possible to do it at the source, you can do bulk encoding at the distribution center, using the aforementioned tunnels or tables to make sure that items are allocated to the inventory correctly.