One of the key challenges facing supply chain managers tasked with overseeing multichannel distribution or online order fulfillment is the efficient handling of "eaches"—single customer orders. There's no way around it: Picking, packing, and shipping individual orders for some types of products is labor-intensive.
The automated material handling equipment commonly deployed in warehouses to handle cases and pallets isn't practical with eaches. You can automate the removal of cases from a pallet because the cases usually are a similar size and weight. But filling eaches-type orders requires opening cases and retrieving items from inside. That's a difficult task to automate because warehouses that fill online orders generally handle a wide assortment of products, and each case could contain items of a different size, shape, and texture. (If the items being ordered were always the same shape and size, then automation would become feasible.)
Robots could potentially help companies reduce the time and cost associated with eaches picking. I'm not talking about a bot, like the mechanized shuttle developed by Kiva Systems. I mean a humanoid machine that can handle some of the manual tasks that people now do. At the moment, there isn't such a thing. But it might not be as far in the future as we think. A company called Rethink Robotics has developed a robot called "Baxter" that's promising. Baxter has a television-screen face, mechanical arms, and rollers for legs—and the ability to see and pick up objects.
In a presentation on robotics at the Supply Chain Council's recent Supply Chain World-North America conference in St. Louis, Tom Bonkenburg, director of European operations for the consulting firm St. Onge Company, said that although Baxter is an amazing technological development, it's too early to put it to use in practical applications. Supply chain managers will have to wait for the second or third generation of the technology before they can deploy Baxter or its descendants in the warehouse.
Whether Baxter fulfills its potential or not, the long-term solution for achieving efficient, cost-effective online and multichannel fulfillment will have to be some type of automation. I'm betting it will come in the form of a robot.