Understanding how different classes of inventory move through the order picking/order fulfillment process is critical to designing a system that is accurate and efficient while meeting business plan objectives. The classes or strata of inventory are usually designated A, B, and C, generally signifying fast, medium, and slow movers.

Those Stock Keeping Units (SKUs) classified as A movers most often conform to Pareto’s 80/20 rule that 20% of the items account for 80% of the orders. We will call this subset of the fastest class A SKUs “Super A” SKUs. These “Super A” SKUs might represent a small percentage of your total inventory, but because they consume a large percentage of labor resources, they represent a challenge to efficient order fulfillment.

What is the most efficient and economical way of handling these “Super A” SKUs? Before looking at that, it’s necessary to fully understand the anatomy of these SKUs.

“Super A” SKUs often have three characteristics in common: high velocity, size, and quantity.

High Velocity. What constitutes a fast moving SKU varies, but “Super A” SKUs usually fall into the range of a few thousand picks per day, consuming from one-third to two-thirds of picking labor resources.

Size. There is a certain size and weight range as well. Items that are smaller than 8” x 8” x 3” and weigh under a pound can provide issues when being picked by manual or automated systems.

Quantity. As few as nine SKUs or as many as thousands can make up the “Super A” inventory sub-group and consume a disproportionate amount of a facility’s resources.

Velocity, size, and quantity of SKUs combine to create a unique order picking challenge. Few material handling solutions offer the speed, accuracy, flexibility, scale, and cost-effectiveness to handle these hot movers.

What has the velocity of flow rack, the accuracy of pick to light, and velocities faster than Shuttle Technologies?

The A-Frame and mobile A-Frame systems are uniquely designed to provide the solution for velocity, throughput, and accuracy while providing that rapid return on investment (ROI). The A-Frame systems conquer the “Super As” and turn them into “completed orders” with a fraction of the resources other order picking technologies require for these unique fast moving SKUs.

A-Frame Design

A-Frame dispensing systems consist of two rows of dispensing channels arranged in an “A” shape that straddles a conveyor. The portable A-Frame is similar but uses only one side to ensure easy mobility. Both utilize all- steel dispensers that are microprocessor-controlled for accurate timing of product release. Belt speed and timing can be customized for fast travel to the product, slower dispense speed, and gentler product handling. A wide range of dispenser types are available to meet specific product shape and size characteristics.

The A-Frame family uses zero picking labor. Items are dispensed or placed automatically into totes, cartons, or belt positions at a rate of up to 4,200 orders or totes per hour. The only labor required is replenishing the unit. Each pick required for its associated order is verified to ensure accurate dispensing. This extremely accurate system often eliminates the need for order checkers, thus reducing labor and time requirements even further. Depending on the size and scale of operations, an A-Frame system can reduce order picking and order checking labor costs by 85% or more.

The capacity of an A-Frame system can range from 16 SKUs in a mobile unit to hundreds or thousands in a full A-Frame system.

The A-Frame family uses zero picking labor. Items are dispensed or placed automatically into totes conveyors or containers. A-Frame dispensing systems are designed to be rugged and reliable yet simply constructed. The only moving parts are the dispensers, which can be quickly changed.

4,200 Orders (Not Lines or Items) an Hour

A-Frame dispensing systems are generally available in three configurations: Pick-to-Belt, Pick-to-Container, and Pick-to-Tote.

In applications that require extremely high throughput, the Pick-to-Tote and Pick-to-Container configurations are usually chosen since they can provide throughput rates of up to 4,200 orders per hour. The number of lines and pieces per order is generally irrelevant.

Whether the application is for e-commerce with one to three lines per order or store orders with hundreds of lines per order, the system automatically dispenses sufficient quantities to fulfill large orders and adjusts the conveyor speed to accommodate each specific order for rapid fast order fulfillment if necessary.

Pick-to-Tote and Pick-to-Container applications not only provide higher throughput rates; it often saves costs by eliminating consolidation, inventory transferring labor or equipment, and order checkers. Dispensing directly into totes or containers helps reduce downstream order handling costs.

High throughput can create other issues, such as order contamination, if the speed of the dispensing process is not controlled. A variable speed conveyor is a must-have feature. It automatically adjusts the conveyor speed based on each specific order profile; slower to accommodate larger numbers of items from one dispenser and faster to receive small quantities from a number of dispensers. In addition, each dispenser can be set for specific picking speeds, depending on the item. Thus, it is possible to pick fragile products gently, while still picking “normal” products at high dispenser speeds to meet throughput requirements, with no damage to fragile items.

Order picking accuracy is of paramount importance, not only for customer satisfaction, but also because high accuracy performance reduces labor costs associated with product checking, re-picks, and returns. A-Frame dispensing systems use sensors to verify that each dispenser unit fires and that the product is successfully dispensed. Systems utilize multiple microprocessor sensors in each dispenser channel to achieve accuracies of more than 99.95%. For the rare anomaly, problems are automatically logged, and the order is flagged and routed off line for manual intervention. A report is printed to locate and direct the correction with little loss in throughput.

High Replenishment Rates

Since these systems utilize zero picking labor, the only requirement is a small percentage of replenishment labor. Easy replenishment is a major feature of A-Frame systems. Operators visually see inventory levels and can fill any SKU with a few clicks of a mouse to stay ahead of the rapid order fulfillment pace. Replenishment rates of more than 1,500 pieces per man-hour can be achieved with no training or special skills required. Automated replenishment devices can handle up to 3,000 pieces/hour. Most importantly replenishment takes place while the A-Frame is operating without interruption.

Efficient Space Utilization

The Pick-to-Tote configuration provides great flexibility in designing the system since this configuration does not require routing conveyors or transfer stations. Any number of frames can be arranged end-to-end, or at right angles, to provide the desired overall capacity. The dense configuration of the channels, together with the unique “compound angle” arrangement, provides efficient utilization with no wasted space. To meet seasonal or promotional order requirements, a mobile A-Frame can be set up in very little space and adjacent to existing conveyor.

Every technology has a place in the order fulfillment process. The key is dividing and conquering your inventory profiles and then utilizing the best of breed solution to turn your operations into a profit center. If your “Super A” SKU profile is light, small, and moves thousands of items per day in consumer, store, or kitting applications, you will likely not find a more efficient or cost-effective solution.

Ed Romaine is VP Sales & Marketing, SI Systems and a frequent speaker at industry events. He can be reached at romaine@sihs.com.