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Item picking order fulfillment involves picking separate items – single units of an SKU, while for case picking, the order is made up of entire cases or cartons. This simple definition, however, masks a profound difference in labor and space requirements and the types of technologies that can be used to automate and optimize item picking and case picking order fulfillment.
In short, while there are plenty of technologies to automate item picking, for case picking, new solutions based on advanced autonomous robotics are finally offering a route to break through the efficiency barrier.
The difference between item picking and case picking
Item picking is the core operation in fulfillment centers, with orders usually shipped to end consumers. On the other hand, case picking is typical for distribution centers where orders are destined for fulfillment centers or brick-and-mortar stores.
Due to the sheer size difference of entire case vs. single item, case picking order fulfillment requires much more space. However, the increasing real estate costs put extra pressure on maximizing productivity and efficiency.
Case picking is also much more difficult to automate. And that means it’s much more vulnerable to labor shortages.
Why is case picking order fulfillment difficult to automate?
Case picking – still – relies almost entirely on manual picking and the traditional people-to-goods workflows. The reason? Most automation technologies widely used for item picking simply don’t translate to case picking.
For example, automated storage and retrieval systems would have to be immense to be practical for most case-picking operations. Any other kind of goods to people – small shelves carried by small non-collaborative robots to pickers, for example – are also difficult to apply to case picking.
So, for typical case-picking operations, there’s no other choice but to rely on the traditional workflow. A picker usually uses a ride-on pallet truck, drives from a picking location to a picking location, gets down from the pallet truck, places the case on the pallet, climbs back up on the pallet truck, and moves on.
Pick-per-voice or wearables may help shave off some time per order, but not much else. In a typical distribution center, a (case) picker is still likely to spend half of their shift just riding from A to B. At a time of severe labor shortages, that is a lot of unproductive time.
Using autonomous robots to automate case picking
Case picking comes with its own set of challenges that are entirely different from item picking. This is why the autonomous mobile robotics solutions designed for item picking can’t simply be applied to case picking.
“One of the main challenges is that the environment of case picking is highly dynamic,” explains Wassim El Hariri, Product Manager at Gideon.
“If we look into a distribution center, we’ll find a lot of pallets – left and right, stored temporarily on any available floor space. There aren’t many fixed, permanent features in space, making it very challenging for a traditional AMR to navigate. And a worst-case scenario would be a bulk storage where you have almost no references.”
Casey, Gideon’s pioneering solution for case picking order fulfillment, hits just this sweet spot. The solution combines Gideon’s advanced autonomous mobile robots, capable of navigating spaces as complex as distribution centers, with our optimization software that organizes people and robots into separate workflows. Casey AMRs (Autonomous Mobile Robot) can thus drive autonomously, taking over those long A-to-B rides, and meet pickers at picking locations.
Let your pickers focus on picking and discover how Casey can help automate your case picking order fulfillment.