2020-08-25

The 'magical' forces working behind the scenes

Gone are the times when you had to leave the house to buy a new pair of sneakers, do your weekly shopping or find a replacement battery for your drill. Today, customers can visit clothing chains, DIY stores, supermarkets and many other retailers online, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Yet transforming their virtual offerings into actual delivered goods still requires physical solutions. This is where the KION Group brands come in.

Today, making your wishes come true is much simpler and more convenient than ever before. It’s a bit like the mythical genie from “The Arabian Nights”: You rub a magic lantern, a genie appears, you make your wish and, hey, presto; your wish is granted! The only difference to the ancient fairytale collection is that you’re relying on the internet instead of a golden lamp to magically do your bidding. Just enter your heart’s desire into a digital search engine, and “Open, sesame,” you’re presented with a vast range of offers and shops from every country under the sun. You take your pick, load up your virtual shopping cart and after a few more mouse clicks or gentle strokes of the touchpad, what was nothing more than a colorful mirage on your screen made up of some two million pixels is now physically on its way to you in real life. And when the delivery service rings your doorbell, your wish has finally – abracadabra! – become reality. With e-commerce we can bring the entire world into our home and millions of products become readily accessible. However, unlike in “The Arabian Nights”, we do have to pay for them.

The magic behind the e-commerce wish fulfillment machine consists of highly complex processes. The simpler a customer’s shopping experience, the greater the requirements on online retailers. They use sophisticated intralogistics solutions: fully and partially automated warehouses, networked trucks and intelligent software. This is where KION Group and its brands, Linde Material Handling, STILL, Baoli, OM and Dematic specialize. They keep the retail supply chains and the rapid expansion of e-commerce running smoothly with comprehensive solution expertise for the many process steps that lie behind a convenient online shopping experience.

A look behind the scenes: Welcome to the warehouse

To understand how these processes work, It is important to look behind the virtual storefront of online shops to where the real magic is happening: in the warehouses. The actual warehouse setup depends on the type of goods being sold. Small items, such as the ones common in the cosmetics and drugstore segments, require different handling from larger items on pallets. Clothing that needs to be stored on hangers to avoid creasing poses different challenges from refrigerated food with a best before date. No matter what the product, the KION Group brands offer the respective warehouse technology to store any goods in a systematic and readily accessible way; the first of many key requirements for smooth and fast online purchasing.

Total control for full shelves

Every day around the world, items are conveyed from goods inward to their assigned position in the warehouse by hundreds of thousands of trucks from Linde MH, STILL, Baoli, OM and Dematic, from powerful electric forklifts and (partially) automated tugger trains all the way to automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that navigate entirely autonomously. Intelligent fleet management software such as Linde connect ensures that every truck is in the right place at the right time. Combined with the warehouse management software, it allows all movements of goods within the warehouse to be tracked at any time. The high demands on today’s online retail mean that in addition to an efficient flow of materials, an intelligent flow of information is also required at all times.

Shelves are stocked by very narrow aisle (VNA) trucks – often automated – that can lift entire pallets to a height of up to ten meters (nearly 38 feet). In small parts stores, the job is done by automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS). Fully automated warehouses use the Dematic Multishuttle, a fixed lift system installed between racks that transports items to the relevant shelves using conveyor belt technology and can even move goods across aisles thanks to the perfect coordination of its individual shuttles.

From ordering to shipping in record time

For large e-commerce retailers, an entire product range made up of assorted sizes, colors and other specifications can consist of up to 350 million individual items, according to estimates by Dematic. Once they are located in the right position within the warehouse, the actual business of online ordering can begin. Each individual order represents a particular ‘shopping list’ to be assembled during the picking process from the vast array of stock held in the warehouse; a highly complex task that has to be completed in record time. These days, customers expect to wait a maximum of 2.5 days between order and delivery. In some cases, delivery is on the same day or even within the hour. To gain time in these cases, KION offers advanced solutions to accelerate picking, such as STILL’s OPX iGO Neo, a collaborative robot, or 'cobot', that can autonomously navigate its way and accompanies warehouse staff engaged in manual picking to carry heavy loads for them. An even faster option is fully automated conveyor belt technology with fixed sorting stations where employees prepare orders for shipping. Current developments in robotics will lead to still higher rates of throughput. In picking, these highly specialized machines will not only be suitable for static use at a conveyor belt, but, due to pioneering research projects where KION is involved, they should soon be able to move around the warehouse autonomously and unaccompanied.

Finding shorter routes to customers

Once the goods are ready for shipping, the next question is how to get them from the warehouse to the customer as quickly as possible. KION’s assorted brands have effective solutions for the ‘last mile’ as well, such as the pilot project from Dematic, Packmyride. Here, package delivery vehicles can be quickly loaded using a fully automated system which takes the physical strain off drivers and also saves them valuable time. Another strategy is to bring distribution warehouses closer to the cities, and thus, closer to customers. This is the premise behind microfulfillment. It involves fully automated depots with a relatively small footprint that can be accommodated in urban areas, such as at the back of a retail store. In the food industry, Dematic’s solution can be adapted to work in different temperature ranges, making it possible to pick and store frozen products. However, the real added value is speed. With this solution, a customer’s ‘small item’ order can be picked and shipped within 60 minutes for fast delivery, or the increasingly popular click & collect option, where customers have the convenience of ordering online but pick up their orders themselves.

Ready for the next order

Thus, the real ‘magic’ in the wish fulfillment machine is the speed with which all of these complex processes are performed. It is why seamless intralogistics – including process automation – have long since become a major competitive factor and an integral part of the (online) retail reality. Whatever you last ordered online, it is highly likely your request came into contact with one of our products of software solutions. Perhaps one of the more than 1.5 million industrial trucks worldwide, or one of over 6,000 automated warehouse systems installed in over 100 countries. With their perfectly integrated solutions and products, every one of the KION brands is making a significant contribution to our ability to conveniently shop with a single click, and without the wait; keeping the genie in the magic lamp.

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