3 Smart Ideas to Boost Your Order Fulfillment Process

logistics processes in warehouse setting

This is the second part of a four-part series examining typical logistics processes within in a distribution center (DC). In our last discussion, we explored opportunities to improve operational efficiency and increase throughput for inbound logistics. Today we will focus on order fulfillment.

Consumer shopping behavior has shifted towards more online channels - such as Buy Online Pickup in Store (BOPIS) and direct ship. Retailers with both a brick and mortar and online presence are feeling the strain as many DCs are not well equipped to handle high-volume, fast delivery, single item orders. High performance barcode readers and machine vision systems are increasingly playing a critical role in helping organizations meet the surge in demand and fulfill orders more efficiency, accurately, and cost effectively. Real-time performance feedback and image offload help operations teams quickly diagnose code reading issues and address problems earlier in the process, so throughput is maximized.

Below we describe three popular order fulfillment applications and Cognex’s solutions to common challenges.

Improve pick accuracy through item verification

Item verification

In the age of digital consumerism, retailers and e-commerce organizations pride themselves on order accuracy, achieving positive consumer reviews, and delivering on their brand promise. Shipping incorrect items costs money, adds rework time, and can lead to negative impacts on a retailer’s reputation. One approach to minimize or eliminate shipping incorrect items is to implement a verification process that is both efficient and accurate.

When there is pressure to decrease order cycle times, verifying order contents can be challenging, especially if complete item information is not available at each step in the process. Many organizations perform manual checks either visually or by scanning the barcode label on the item. This is effective if the code label is correct or volumes are low enough for visual verification. However, if the code is torn, smudges, or damaged, the item information may not be captured correctly, if at all, and can affect the order quality. If this happens, operators either rely on the information on the barcode label or give their best guess. This causes errors, rework, and extra shipping costs to rectify the situation.

One way to increase traceability throughout the order fulfillment process is by using a 3D +2D inspection system, such as the Cognex 3D-A1000 Dimensioning System, to capture and compare package dimensional data to the barcode information before the item is fulfilled. This approach provides accurate item-level dimensions to properly categorize and verify the correct item and improve order accuracy, shorten order cycle time, and reduce the costs associated with incorrect shipments.

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Improve pick times and accuracy

Improve pick times

With the rapid rise in e-commerce, ops teams are looking for ways to increase throughput while maintaining quality. Typically, the choice is either hire more operators or find ways to increase existing operator efficiency. To avoid increased costs, most companies choose the latter.

However, improving efficiency can be challenging. Codes can be located on any side of the package or can be damaged from transport or handling. This means operators must manipulate the package and attempt several scans before getting a good read. Older technology, such as laser barcode scanners, are often unreliable when it comes to reading damaged codes. Handheld or ring scanners limit the operator to just having one hand free which affects productivity. Plus, handheld scanning technology is almost inevitably associated with high rates of breakage, loss, or connectivity issues.

Many companies have discovered the benefits of hands-free overhead barcode reading. Deploying a presentation scanning solution using fixed-mount barcode readers, such as the Cognex DataMan 470, mounted overhead solves these challenges. Image-based barcode readers with advanced decoding algorithms provide an advantage over laser or line scan technology when it comes to successfully reading damaged, smudged, or distorted codes. The overhead scanning configuration allows operators to quickly scan codes from any orientation – upside down, sideways, even extreme angles of up to 85 degrees, improving throughput and efficiency.

Ensure totes are routed to the right pick station and decrease order cycle times

Ensure totes are routed to the right pick station

Distribution and fulfillment centers use high-volume conveyance to deliver ordered items in totes to pick stations in different zones across the facility. To do this efficiently, barcode readers read codes on the sides of the cartons/totes that contain order information and route them accordingly. Due to constant use and rough handling, codes on totes can wear down and become smudged or damaged. If a code cannot be read, totes will not reach any picking station and will keep re-circulating - which adds rework time and cost. Typical laser scanning technology cannot always read damaged codes, nor can facility managers get feedback when codes are becoming unreadable – which can lead to bigger issues later.

Image-based barcode readers, such as the Cognex DataMan 260, provide a powerful barcode reading solution for zone routing systems. These types of readers use advanced algorithms and decoding technology to reliably read damaged, or non-aligned barcodes on totes in small egress situations to send them to the right pick station. In addition, these solutions read codes omni-directionally and at high perspectives when totes are not aligned on the belt. Using image-based output and code quality metrics from these barcode readers allows tote labels to be graded so smudged and damaged codes can be replaced before no reads cause problems downstream.

As you can see through these application examples, there are plenty of opportunities to optimize areas of your order fulfillment area for efficiency and throughput. Browse our library of logistics applications and logistics barcode reading systems and tunnel solutions to learn how Cognex image-based barcode readers and machine vision solutions help improve efficiency and traceability, increase throughput, and optimize processes.

Check in a couple weeks from now when we discuss sortation.

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Mike Poe

Global Content Marketing Manager, Cognex

A technology marketer for over two decades, Mike enjoys communicating how technology can improve business outcomes. Over his career, he’s helped businesses in many industries understand the value of technology through work at Dell/EMC, Sun Microsystems, a few technology startups, and, since January 2020, at Cognex. When not extolling the virtues of using machine vision across various industries, he can be found exploring local Massachusetts and Cape Cod waterways with his kayak, taking in local craft breweries, or working on home improvement projects.

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