Floor designer

Packing stations take care of everything

It’s easy to overlook the value of packing stations. Jeff Bezos did. Fortunately, one of his employees rescued him from the brink.

In its early days, Amazon packed orders on the floor. Yes, the 10 employees got down on all fours to pack the orders for shipment. Bezos thought knee pads would be a great innovation. But one of his fellow packers suggested packing the tables instead.

Bezos went out the next day and bought several. And, in 2018, said on “The David Rubenstein Show: Peer-to-Peer Conversations” that adding packing tables was “the most brilliant idea” he had ever heard. He thought they “doubled productivity”. Doubled, indeed.

Today, Amazon, like many other businesses, especially e-commerce businesses, uses packing stations to do more than just gather the components of an order and package and label them for final preparation. for the expedition.

“The success story of the packing station comes down to the process flow throughout the facility,” says Rod Gallaway, CEO of package size.

“Packaging stations need to be fully integrated with what’s upstream in the distribution center as well as the shipping dock. And that includes highly automated material handling equipment as well as the more manual ones,” says Jeff Dehnertpresident of Dehnco.

Gallaway adds that order flow needs to be steady so that no activity in the DC is starved or flooded. “It’s the only way to ensure that productivity is maximized,” he says. Packing stations happen to be nearing the end of the order fulfillment process.

Dan HanrahanPresident and CEO of Numina Group, adds “Think of picking/packing/shipping as an ongoing process. If there is a bottleneck in one element, it will negate gains elsewhere in the process.

Packsize provides automated packing stations, Dehnco focuses on manual stations and Numina is equipment independent. Yet all three emphasize the importance of order flow.

As they and others will tell you, there’s more to packing stations than circulating. They also perform vital ergonomic and safety functions during packaging and shipping, says Rob Doucetteapplication engineer at BOSTONtec.

The ergonomic function is evident especially when it comes to height-adjustable tables for manual packing stations. Doucette says the trick is to make the tables adaptable to people of all sizes and products of all sizes with minimal disruption throughout the day.

“They are best when viewed as modular, ergonomic work benches,” says Bob Simmonsvice president of Proline.

The fit inherently makes packing operations safer by minimizing the need for packers to twist and turn awkwardly. Doucette sees a big push right now from companies to focus on ergonomics at packing stations.

Throughput, safety, and ergonomics are primary design concerns for packing stations. However, there is a long list of station components and layouts that must be considered when designing packing stations.

Customizing the design of packing stations is essential to accommodate specific products, product mixes, and shipping requirements.

Real estate footprint

The words real estate refer to two quite different, but equally important areas for pack stations.

One is the footprint on the ground. The other is the space inside the shipping box.

Let’s start with the footprint of these stations.

As you probably already imagined, one-size-fits-all is not possible here. While manual packing stations are typically 30 x 60 inches or 30 x 84 inches, these are more starting points than anything.

BG Edwards, vice president of sales and marketing at Creform, says the widest station his company has supplied recently is 9 feet wide. But the possibilities don’t stop there.

Amazon and many others combine manual stations with semi-automated and almost fully automated stations. Others organize their packing area according to the general size of items in typical orders, with small items handled at one or two stations and larger items at others.

Doucette rightly calls workstation design a headache and says customization is the name of the game based on the specific needs of the operation.

And there is nothing surprising in this. According to Edwards, one of the main concerns of end users is “to have the right supplies in the right place without wasted space”.

This list is long for manual stations. Items include: monitors; keyboards; printers; tape recorders; scanners; void filling machines; Balance; label polythene bags and boxes. Everything must be somewhere and in sufficient quantity.

But it doesn’t get any simpler, says Simmons of Proline. “Storage of consumables in stations has increased by 25% over the last four or five years. The challenge is having enough storage so that restocking doesn’t become an overwhelming activity,” he adds.

Or as Dehnert of Dehnco puts it, “what was 10 boxes is now 15 boxes and six polybags”.

Doucette tells the story of LLBean. “They create some of the most sophisticated workstations in the world,” he says.

The process begins with soil engineers defining the problem and solutions to come up with a final design. “It’s heavy customization. These engineers determine the cost of each move for the packers at the stations,” says Doucette.

“Everything we need is close at hand. Everything is placed in the right place at the right time in the packaging process,” explains Doucette.

Bean then asks BOSTONtec to build a prototype that undergoes operator testing for at least two weeks. Operator input is essential to the final design of the workstation. “The ultimate goal is operator well-being. It’s just the culture of LLBean,” Doucette says.

“A big part of the equation is return on investment,” says Sean Webb, director of North American sales and service at Sparck Technologies. This provider of automated packing stations works with an ROI spreadsheet that factors in labor, material, and transportation costs. Webb’s goal is 15 months, which applies to both automated and manual packing stations.

Real estate box

Almost every conversation about packing stations is about the size of the box or shipping envelope, as freight is about to become the biggest cost in the packing/shipping process today. today, says Dehnert.

This is why proper sizing of shipping boxes and bags is critical to cost control.

Even in the most manual stations, we have far exceeded the time of “one-box-fits-all” expeditions. As mentioned, it’s common to have several sizes of boxes and bags on hand. A warehouse management system (WMS) is often used to guide the operator to the right size box for a particular order. This in turn determines the amount of void fill needed.

Storage of consumables at stations has increased by 25% over the past few years, says Proline’s Simmons.

Hanrahan from Numina Group talks about the expanded role of Warehouse Execution Systems (WES) to perform from order release to picking and shipping. It starts with grouping similar orders in the DC, then selecting them into bins or shipping containers based on packing and shipping rules to manage the movement of orders to specific packing stations for the documentation, labeling and tape prior to shipment.

Another approach is an application programming interface (API), explains James Malley, co-founder of Paccurate. The idea of ​​an API, he says, is to take dimensional data typically found in the WMS and use it to direct the packer to the right packaging solution for that particular order.

“The greatest value is closing the gap between what people think is 3D reality and what it actually is,” Malley says. In dollars and cents, that can mean savings of 20% or more on shipping costs, he adds.

The importance of shipping costs is amplified as volumes increase, which is where semi-automated and automated systems come into play.

First, there is the issue of throughput. “At manual stations, one can reasonably expect one person to pack 35 boxes per hour,” says Sparck’s Webb. “Automated systems raise that bar from 300 to 1,000 orders per hour or more for each system,” he adds.

These systems achieve these throughputs without necessarily eliminating all labor. In fact, even the most automated systems usually have one or two people up front to collect the items and initiate them into processing, Webb says. Automation usually takes over after that as the equipment places the items into a properly sized shipping container which is automatically checked in and tagged for shipment.

While manual stations aren’t going away anytime soon, most experts agree that automation is the future of pack stations. And the reason, in a nutshell, is e-commerce.

“E-commerce and its proliferation are driving demand for random processing of items of varying sizes on the fly. And that leads to automation,” says Packsize’s Gallaway.

“Systems must combine three attributes: protect items inside the box or bag, be the right size for shipping, and be cost effective,” adds Gallaway. And doing this “randomly on the fly” is the secret sauce of what happens in automated systems.

Most experts agree that automation is the future of packing stations.

The solutions here are proprietary. Apart from the differences in throughput, they also differ in the functions performed. Not all systems perform all box assembly steps or automatically glue and label boxes and bags. They also have different capacities to properly size the package and dose an appropriate amount of void fill, if needed.

That said, pack stations are not a proposition to install and use forever. “Historically, we were installing a set of workstations and didn’t hear from the company for 10 years,” says Dehnert. “Companies are constantly re-evaluating their packing stations now. Their order mix evolves in a matter of months and packing stations need to keep up,” he adds. And the continued expansion of e-commerce isn’t going to make that any easier in the future.