Mhlnews 2313 Mousedollarsign

Back to Basics: The Ergonomics of E-Commerce Fulfillment

Nov. 8, 2012
Distribution centers adapting to the high service demands of online consumers are adopting robotic technologies to ease the strains of storage and retrieval on workers.

The e-commerce market continues to grow rapidly and is a bright spot for the retail industry. According to Forrester's U.S. Online Retail Forecast, 2011-2016, U.S. consumers have already spent $226 billion online this year, and are expected to spend $327 billion in 2016.  In addition, the "Web 2.0 era" of the Internet inspired consumer expectations of ordering an item online one day and then quickly receiving it on their doorstep.

To handle "click and get" consumer e-commerce demand, distribution centers are transforming into the primary connection between company and customer, adding additional strain on already busy facilities. It's important that these new strains do not diminish the value of a satisfied and productive workforce. Satisfied workers are integral to maintaining a successful fulfillment center, and companies must place a high level of importance on environmental conditions and concerns that can impact workers' quality of life.  A 2011 study published in the Journal of Service Research found that companies that attend to employee satisfaction can improve internal morale, reduce turnover and enhance customer satisfaction.

Wear and Tear

Order fulfillment is a physically demanding career that involves repetitive movements such as lifting, carrying and bending with the specifics of e-commerce selection adding more pressure.  In larger warehouse facilities with traditional operations, order pickers can end up walking more than 15 miles each day on hard surfaces.  Even in smaller distribution centers, where pick-to-belt systems are installed, operators can walk up to five miles over the course of a shift.  These requirements are physically taxing, and fatigued workers are less efficient and more prone to error. As workers age, excessive bending and stretching can lead to higher rates of injury and associated workman's compensation expense.

21st Century Automation

Robotic automation is improving the DC work environment.  Human interface with robots is safe by design compared to the randomness of such warehouse equipment as the forklift, and more companies are looking to automate storage and retrieval technologies to meet the demands of the e-commerce market.

Systems that use high-speed robots for put-away and storage are designed to work in confines that are limited or even completely off-limits to operators. With such systems, workers merely insert bins into the storage cube via one or more receiving stations, and robots take over the actual put-away work, eliminating miles of unnecessary walking.  This also applies to when the robots bring the inventory to pickers for selection. 

Better Ergonomics

The industry is finally getting smarter about ergonomics for workers in the e-commerce era.  Ergonomic improvements are a key benefit of automated storage and retrieval technologies.  Systems can be designed so robots present bins to workers at a fixed, ergonomic position, eliminating unnecessary bending and stretching.  Companies have also reported that simply by using smaller bins, workers have to stretch or perform stressful physical maneuvers far less frequently.

In addition to accommodating high e-commerce order volumes, most inventory storage technologies are relatively noise-free.  With a virtually silent operation, workers and supervisors can communicate easily and the risk of hearing loss is greatly reduced.  Companies report that operators are now able to speak with each other with ease.  They can also hear their own music without blasting it.  Overall, this creates a better working atmosphere.

The New Age of Fulfillment

Implementing fulfillment technologies can save workers time and energy, while increasing employee satisfaction and productivity. It also sends a strong message that management is "walking the talk" on performance.

Bill Leber is Swisslog's director of business development for North America.

Latest from Technology & Automation