In order to be profitable, today’s e-commerce companies are adapting their logistics – using new optimization levers inspired by methods that have already proven to be successful in the warehouse. The growing pressure of logistics chain flows, which are particularly noticeable in the e-commerce sector, has contributed to this change. Direct shipping to the end customer and growing demands in terms of the service provided have led companies who were originally delivering directly to stores to reposition their logistics in order to adapt to the B2C model. As we saw in a previous article, some companies prefer to outsource their logistics, while others insource it by developing their processes.
Implementing lean management
Human beings remain essential in the warehouse and contribute to process development. In this regard, the implementation of lean management, the first step towards industrialisation, involves the organisation of staff. In particular, it consists of optimising flows via the “Value stream mapping” method, which involves mapping the flows (materials and information) of the value chain in order to determine non value added actions, as well as sources of waste (“Muda”). Lean management can also lead to the implementation of anti-error (“poka-yoke”) systems that correspond to pick-to-light systems in storage warehouses – with this system, the person preparing the orders takes the quantity of articles indicated on a display at the place where the light flashes. The 5S method refers (in Japanese) to the five following actions: sort, set in order, shine, standardise and sustain. It therefore aims to permanently improve the tasks undertaken.
Moving towards automation
Whilst logistics initially focused on a workforce, today it tends to mechanise and automate its processes, taking inspiration from the industrial model used by manufacturing plants. Consequently, we now see the installation in storage warehouses of conveyor belts transporting boxes, sorters dispatching packages according to their destination, automated storage systems using radio shuttle, such as the PalletShuttle solution produced by German manufacturer Still, or even AGV (automated guided vehicles), handling vehicles without a driver. Pioneers in this area, even though their neighbours have followed suit, the Germans remain the most advanced in Europe, in terms of units and value of installation of automated devices. What are the aims? To reduce the ground surface areas used, gain in productivity, absorb strong growth but also to lower the order processing error rate and thus increase the quality of service.
The implementation of automation may on the other hand enable operator working conditions to be improved by reducing their journeys in the warehouse with the goods-to-man system (the product comes to the man) and by improving work station ergonomics. After optimisation research, taking human beings into consideration should never be neglected. Proponents of automation thus highlight its capacity to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders by eliminating difficult manual operations.
Care needs to be taken, however, as automation is not systematic. In order to succeed it requires:
– the involvement of the entire company in the changeover
– the ability to analyse activities and flows upstream in order to plan
– an IT tool suitable for exchanging data both internally and externally
– being able to rely on people (within the company or by calling on external resources) who have an overall vision for the project whilst being capable of redesigning logistics processes in the warehouse
– and finally having staff adhere to them.
In the end, automation will depend above all on the type of product and the turnover rate. Automation is, in fact, less relevant when the customer’s flow volume is insufficient. Because it requires a significant level of investment, under a certain turnover threshold it is not necessarily profitable.