I recently visited an Amazon Fulfillment center to discover how automation is changing wholesale distribution. As you can imagine, Amazon is at the cutting edge of automation. Each step of the process uses multiple pieces of technology to get it there faster. Despite the majority of product “movement” being automated, there are still very human first processes as well. Here we’ll take a look at how automation is changing wholesale distribution and what can be done to leverage it. The goal is to provide a starting point for smaller businesses, by learning from larger ones, while staying focused on the consumer.

So what are some of the technologies being used to take the new product in, sort that product, and get it to your door? In large part, it comes back to the raw movement. Belts, robots, slides. These are all part of the “automation” which is then enhanced by scanners, lasers, scales, and computer vision. So let’s break this down into categories.

Inbound Automation

When product first arrives at your facility, what happens? This step in the supply chain is the first step toward getting product organized for distribution.

Truck Bay Assignment

If you have multiple bays that trucks are coming into, you know how important it is in determining the best location for those trucks to come to. This step is automated beforehand by either for WMS or by another system which manages the yard. Telling trucks to go to bay 10 over bay 1, reduces the transport time of product. The software organizes all the bays and understands generally what product is on the truck, and where within the warehouse it needs to go. It’s easy to see how automation is changing wholesale distribution here in that each truck/bay is organized and computed to give the shortest distance.

Pallet Storage and Unloading

Each pallet that comes off the truck is assigned to be either unloaded and individually sowed in the warehouse or sent to a holding cell within the warehouse racking system. In Amazon’s case, they use a “randomized” inventory method. This means any product can be stored in any location. Each pallet is typically unloaded, unless it’s sold as a whole, or broken down as the individual product is sold. The key here is to minimize distance between where the pallet is, and how far someone must walk to retrieve the product when the order comes through.

Robotic Product Storage

In the largest warehouses, when product comes inbound it is placed on robotic storage “pods” which move around autonomously. The process looks like this: pallets come in, they are unloaded and placed on a pod, which is moved by a robot. The robot does the movement, and the person stays at a station. The robot is told via the computer when it is needed. It knows when it’s needed since it has the contents of it’s “pod” are stored to the computer. This makes it easy to retrieve and begin the picking process.

How Automation is Changing Wholesale Distribution Picking

When an order comes in, the product in the order needs to be picked and either shipped directly or packaged and labeled for shipping via carrier.

Robotic Picking

The most advanced automation is done when the order comes in, and the robot (knowing it’s contents) comes to a “zone” where the contents can be unloaded. As you can imagine, this requires a method of organizing the robots, as well as routing the robots. It is by far the most efficient method. Alternatively, there may be a vending machine style fulfillment. In this scenario, the racks of the warehouse have a massive robotic arm, which can both place product within a bin, and it can retrieve those items according to the customer order. See the gifs below.

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Inbound Robots Moving Product for Storage
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Vending Machine Style Warehouse Fulfillment Picking Bot

Packing and Shipping

Once that product is nabbed from your warehouse, it needs to get to a packing area. It’s at this packing area where the product is weighed, given an appropriate box, taped up and labeled for shipping. Alternatively, as wholesalers, it may only be getting a pallet from the rack to the truck. Let’s cover the first scenario.

How Automation Is Changing Wholesale Distribution From Picking to Packing

Whether you are manually picking the product, or it is fully automated, the product needs to get to the next area. At this point, conveyor belts, sensors, and slides come into play. Taking the Amazon case, once the product is placed into a bin, it is then slid on a conveyor, which moves it to a whole new area of the warehouse.

Conveyor belts, while not classically thought of as a “automation” actually make automation possible. Typically however, the next step is to simply get it to a station where an individual can grab the product, and assemble it into the appropriate box size. Here the computer will likely already know the size of the box, and will tell the packer which box size to grab. It will then feed out the packing tape, and provide package material. This is not a step which is automated, until the warehouse size becomes quite large.

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Automated Packaging and Labeling

Shipping Automation

What happens after it’s packaged up? Back to the conveyor, or straight to the scale. Each product will need to be weighed again typically, for accuracy. Once weighed, the package shipping label is slapped on the box. This is typically automated through a shipping software built directly within the WMS. With the shipping label applied, it’s back to the conveyor belts. In this step, the product will travel down until it reaches the designated loading zone. Oftentimes, in large warehouses, this happens with a specialized conveyor belt. The belt “pushes” the product toward a bay or bin which will get shipped to specific shipping zones.

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Automated Sorting for Delivery

Routing and Delivery

The delivery of product from wholesale distributors is oftentimes done via internal fleets. Here, the product may not need shipping labels or packaging. Rather, the product simply needs to be picked, weighed for capacity planning, and loaded on the truck.

How automation is changing wholesale distribution routing and delivery comes into play through mobile applications. Once that product is placed at the staging area, it is ready to go out. Here, for instance, the dHUB system tells employees which product is loaded first to last and on what truck to load. This small but important automation ensures your customers orders are accurate while routing the load most efficiently across your fleet. Everything at this stage is coordinated through a mobile application. This leaves all the guesswork out of the equation to reduce errors. If you’re still manually coordinating routes and delivery schedules, this may be one area that is least expensive and most effective toward cutting costs.

How Automation is Changing Wholesale Distribution Product Delivery

Beyond the routing, it’s the job of the mobile app to ensure that each customer get’s exactly what they are looking for. So, the mobile app, upon arrival at a customer location pulls up every product needed to be delivered, so it can be scanned and delivered. At this stage it’s appropriate to collect a proof of delivery signature as well. Once getting the signature you can quickly print or send an email invoice while also accepting payment. Not all systems will do this, but you’d want to at least have this capability so you can streamline operations.

While this post may not have gone through all areas of how automation is changing wholesale distribution, the hope is you’ll have a good idea of what is possible and where the industry is going.

If you need to take the first step, feel free to reach out to one of our people or email specialist@getdhub.com so we can take a brief analysis of your current operations. We’ll generate a proposed solution and this will help you have a good understanding of the appropriate next step. Good luck out there!

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