3PL Automation: Inside Modern Fulfillment Center Machinery

3PL Automation: Inside Modern Fulfillment Center Machinery

Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes to fill ecommerce orders at a modern-day fulfillment center? Join us as we tour of one of ShipMonk’s state-of-the-art, 3PL fulfillment centers. You’re going to see how integrated technologies, various forms of automation, and AI robots work side by side with our trained pick-and-pack team members to get ecommerce orders out the door.

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Cubiscan® Dimensioning Systems

It all starts in receiving. As merchandise comes into our warehouses from the manufacturer or ecommerce business, we unbox it and check to make sure it contains the correct contents and quantities of each SKU. Each of our 12 world-wide fulfillment center locations is equipped with a Cubiscan® which uses infrared technology to weigh, dimensionally measure, and photograph one of each individual SKU. These error-proof measurements are used for quality control and to optimize storage locations, reduce packaging waste, and optimize shipping costs.

Automated Slotting

System integrations enable us to pull data from the ecommerce storefront or other sales channels and automatically assign each SKU the optimal storage location within our warehouse. The system takes several data points into consideration including the item’s size, order volume, and warehouse technologies available for the most efficient pick and pack operations. The ecommerce business only pays for the space they need, and don’t have to worry about changing needs.

Software Platform

The user interface for ShipMonk’s ecommerce business clients is intuitive and easy to use, because we built it that way. This industry leading fulfillment software platform has robust tools for real-time order tracking, inventory management, and reporting, and can be customized to fit the business’ needs. Behind the scenes, complex algorithms progressively improve the performance and efficiencies of our fulfillment centers. From picking routes to quality control checkpoints, automatic slotting, and predictive packaging, we’re constantly enhancing our systems to increase throughput and reduce costs without compromising accuracy.

Picking Routes

When an order comes in, our 3PL software knows precisely where each item in the order is stored, and instantaneously figures out the best route it should take (and which technologies to use) for picking and packing most efficiently. Unlike most fulfillment warehouses, we have several options. Based on the order’s contents, the system will assign it to a plastic tote or designate a certain size box. A barcode on the tote or box is used to track the order through the warehouse. The order begins its journey using one of the following methods:

  • Tote De-stacker pulls a new tote off a stack, and places it on a conveyor belt for pick-to-tote orders. Thousands of feet of automated conveyor belts quickly move the tote from one section of the warehouse to another, using scanning systems and dividers, chutes, and ramps to guide each order in different directions. Pickers work in zones, filling totes as they pass by.
  • Robotic Arm picks, folds and seals the bottom of each box, then sets it on a conveyor belt to move to its first picking station. Pickers fill the boxes as they move along, similar to totes.
  • Case Erector builds and seals large boxes used to pack cases for bulk retail and B2B order fulfillment.
  • Locus Robots are assigned to carry totes (instead of conveyor belts) when items in the order are located far apart within the warehouse. These automated mobile robots (ARMs) carry as many as four totes at a time, saving time and steps for the picking team. Each picker works within a zone, locating items to add to each tote, then sends the robot on to the next zone. When the order is complete, the last picker sends it to a packing station. Every robot and every bin is tracked to make sure we’re hitting all of our KPIs (key performance indicators).

Picking Automation

Our fulfillment centers utilize automated picking technology to maximize pick time and cost, speeding up fulfillment times while maintaining industry-leading quality control standards. As orders are filled, the totes and boxes undergo seven different quality control checks to make sure the correct items are in the correct bin and headed in the right direction.

  • Pick-to-Light System makes it easier for pickers to locate the correct SKU. When they tap the item on the digital pick list, a light goes on identifying the location on the shelf where the SKU is stored. The picker pulls out the correct quantity, and scans the barcode on each unit to double check accuracy before placing them in the tote or box. This system significantly reduces human error in the picking process.
  • High-speed Sortation Robots fill dozens of orders at a time when the orders all contain various combinations of the same items. Pickers simply load the common colors and sizes into the machine and the machine sorts them into separate bins, one for each order. This is much faster than sending a picker to the same bin hundreds of times per day.

Packing Automation

ShipMonk has various pack stations designed for the different types of order profiles that we handle, from small DTC orders to bulk retail orders. Some stations are reserved for custom packaging or sustainable dunnage (filler) for the brands that request them. Each station is equipped with a quality control screen that lists what the package should contain, the size of box, padded mailer or poly bag, and the filler that should be used. Each order is photographed to verify contents before packing. This work is done carefully by hand, but some steps are automated.

  • Case Sealer seals the top of each box after packing.
  • Print and Apply labeler automatically prints and applies a shipping label to each box.
  • Sorter scans and sorts all small-parcel orders after they’re packed. Whether they’re in a box, padded mailer, or poly bag, they ride a specially designed conveyor belt through an overhead scanner. The conveyor belt then sorts them down chutes into larger shipping containers according to the carrier, shipping method and destination. These large containers are then taken by forklift to our loading docks, where they await pickup.

Journey’s End

The last stop in the order’s journey is when it lands on the customer’s doorstep. If all goes according to plan, it arrives on time, the contents are accurate and in perfect condition, and the customer is delighted. Ultimately, that’s the point of all this automation, robotics, machinery, and integrated technology — to keep your customers happy. Without happy customers your business can’t grow.

When you’re ready to outsource your fulfillment operations to a 3PL, be sure to get a quote from ShipMonk. Our commitment to technology and our 99.9% accuracy rate speak for themselves, but we’d love to show you more ways we can help you “Stress Less and Grow More!”

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