Consultants Making IT Happen:

Martin Dempster creates a warehouse cluster picking process that increases efficiency.

Last summer, Balloon hired Martin Dempster as our new innovation manager. His brief was to deliver original functionality and technological tools to help our customers optimise their supply chain operations.

Since joining, Martin has been spearheading the research, design and development of innovative tools and solutions that address our clients’ issues.

His latest innovation project tackles the challenges that warehouses have with clustering.

Tailoring the warehouse clustering process.

Cluster picking allows warehouse operatives to work on a number of orders at the same time. Unlike batch picking though, which involves picking just a single SKU at a time for multiple orders, clustering entails picking several different SKUs at the same time for multiple orders.

Martin explains why clustering is an important topic for Balloon’s clients: “Those with ecommerce-driven models need to pick orders from many locations in a large warehouse – but the challenge is to do it efficiently enough to quickly get the orders out to meet customer demands.”

To minimise walking distances, a warehouse will optimise the spatial arrangement of its products and then design picking methods that use the most efficient routes for operatives to pick orders that include goods that are close to one another.

In considering the challenge of how to design optimal cluster picking strategies, Martin examined and modelled data provided to use by a number of our customers.

Increasing efficiency for Pets Corner using clustering.

He quickly realised though that there is a difference between the academic question of how best to cluster orders versus the reality. And this was driven home even more when he was on a site visit with Balloon customer, Pets Corner.

The Pets Corner warehouse is mixed mode, delivering both bulk quantities to its stores as well as serving individual ecommerce customers. So, they use a mix of picking, using pickers both on foot and in forklifts. Martin expands, “The warehouse also has quite narrow aisles, so to avoid congestion or the risk of a forklift dangerously crossing with a picker on foot, there is a distinct, one-way picking route through the warehouse that is followed by everyone.”

To ensure this path is maintained, Pets Corner carefully considers how it waves its orders. Adds Martin, “This means sending the orders out to be picked chronologically. But as the goods could be anywhere in the warehouse, to maintain safety levels, everyone needs to follow the snaking path. This wasn’t the most efficient route for many of the orders and if one picker was held up, it affected all those coming behind them.”

Martin set out to produce a more efficient cluster picking process for Pets Corner. He first focused on the ecommerce orders, and in particular, the single line orders. To pick these, an operative would usually collect a trolley, then snake around the warehouse following the prescribed route, picking the next ten orders.

Martin data modelled alternative scenarios to see how to increase the efficiency of this method. Ultimately, he proposed waiting longer, until a pool of 100 or 200 orders had built up. He says, “Once there are sufficient orders, they are then segmented into clusters so that they follow a certain pick path. This sees different operatives working in different areas, with all of their orders clustered in a single location, whether that is one aisle or just a section of an aisle.”

Using this method, and regardless of the order profile, the warehouse management system (WMS) segments the pick into a minimum walking route.  It’s more flexible than zone picking, because the warehouse doesn’t have to allocate people to certain areas.

On paper, the new process was set to increase efficiency, so Pets Corner trialled it. Martin confirms, “After running this new picking method for four weeks, Pets Corner has seen a big improvement in efficiency. The time taken to pick a wave is 38% faster. It’s a simple change, but it’s had a dramatic effect.”

Developing clustering as a tool for other warehouse customers.

Martin aims to standardise this new order clustering process so that other Balloon customers can take advantage of it.

He says, “We are creating a configurable, general-purpose model that can be parameterised for other customers. It will give them a number of options to choose from, so they can fully customise their warehouse clustering.”

Balloon is building the solution as a cloud-based web function. The serverless function can be run on demand – called from the cloud infrastructure. The customer’s WMS will query its orders periodically, perhaps every 30 minutes, and the function will be run on those orders from the cloud. The solution then returns the optimised picking clusters to the customer’s WMS for actioning.

Martin is enthusiastic about the potential benefits for Balloon customers. He reasons, “For any of our customers that implement this, nothing needs to change with their own systems architecture. They don’t need to use servers, nor change or add any on premise infrastructure. All the hard work and processing is done in the cloud. And we can continually improve the cloud functionality while allowing customers’ businesses to continue unimpeded.”

With no need for any infrastructure, and only being called on demand, Balloon can also provide it at a much lower cost. Martin elaborates, “It won’t be a traditional licensing model. Instead, customers will be able to pay every time they cluster their orders, via usage-based subscription billing. That way, they only pay for what they wave. And because of that, there’s also an innate flexibility to scale things up or down as required.”

Martin has discussed the tool with several other customers, who are already keen to explore how it can increase their operational efficiency.

What’s next?

Martin is an experienced innovator, having previously created pioneering initiatives and change programmes for prior employers, including brewery and pub chain, BrewDog and luxury shoes, clothing and accessories manufacturer, Goodwin Smith.

He is excited to be steering Balloon’s approach to solving a number of optimisation problems in the warehouse. He says, “I think what’s most exciting is there are so many efficiency problems we can address. For example, bin packing problems where we can determine the most efficient way of packing items into the optimal number of shipping cartons. It might not just be based on the smallest boxes, or the fewest cartons, but perhaps according to favourable shipping rates.”

Creating greater efficiency is a continuous improvement task. Says Martin, “The next stage for Pets Corner is to evaluate other areas of improvement – perhaps looking at multi line orders or considering the effects of starting pick routes at different places throughout the warehouse.”

Continuing to build out the functionality for Pets Corner like this is characteristic of how Balloon approaches its partnership with customers. Says Martin, “Our aim for all our customers is to make them as successful as possible, and our consultants deliver value for them by driving growth through these sorts of innovations.”

Martin and some of Balloon’s data science and software engineering graduates are already tackling other innovation projects. Ideas in the pipeline or already underway include solving pick path optimisation problems and  addressing stock counting challenges. There are also some distinctly customer-specific solutions, like minimising waste for a manufacturer.

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