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Publication Date: 10/1/2010
Archive >  October 2010 Issue >  Electronic Mfg. Services > 

Combining Pick & Return Handling Processes
Returns are handled as easily as order picking, and can be combined with this storage system.
Reverse logistics or returns can be found in virtually any manufacturing and distribution facility that ships to internal and external customers, making it crucial to have an efficient process in place. Combining picking and returns into one automated system can help electronic organizations relieve handling costs, achieve greater productivity and improve customer service.

Merchandise can be returned for a variety of reasons and by some estimates can amount to 5 to 10 percent of the items that are shipped. An effective approach to handling both picking and returns is by integrating horizontal and vertical carousels and Vertical Lift Modules (VLMs) to automate, combine and simplify the order fulfillment process.

Combining Automation & Software
By developing workstations that use the right combination of automated equipment, inventory management software and process, picking and returns-handling can be significantly improved up to 600 percent in some applications, while offering a more accurate method of maintaining inventories and reducing mispicks. In doing so, this combination increases operator efficiency and productivity, reduces inventory levels, and improves customer service and satisfaction. Automated storage and retrieval systems provide 100 percent accessible storage and are designed to deliver stored items at an ergonomically optimized height to eliminate bending, stretching and reaching, reducing labor requirements by up to 66 percent. These systems can minimize dwell time caused by operators searching for the correct storage location and increase productivity by allowing operators to suspend current operations with a click of a button to handle a return or process an order. Once the return or pick is completed, an operator can return to the previous activity immediately with little delay in the process.

A publishing company in Missouri combined all of its sales and returns into one high-throughput, labor-efficient and accurate system. The heart of the system is a bank of 12 horizontal carousels that are arranged in three workstations with four carousels per workstation. The horizontal carousel system is located in the distribution center.

The publishing house integrates conveyors to transport orders from one carousel workstation to the next. This pick-and-pass methodology allows SKUs to be located at any one of the carousels, eliminating multiple positions and reducing inventory. An order is sent from workstation one to workstation two and on to workstation three. A significant portion of the literature distributed to representatives is sent back to the distribution facility to be returned to stock and distributed again. Up to 50 out of the 100 cases sent out are returned with each containing up to 1000 lines per case. Due to the large number of SKUs returned daily, a system providing not only efficient picking, but also fast returns handling was required.

Breaking Down Returns
The returns are broken down by SKU. Each SKU is scanned, associated with a tote, its license plate is scanned, and it is put on the conveyor to the correct carousel workstation or shelving area. The operator scans the tote and the carousel's position to the correct carrier; the pick-to-light trees indicate exactly where to place the SKU — which carousel, carrier, shelf, and cell.

The carousel system has dramatically reduced the required man-hours and increased productivity by as much as 30 percent. The system requires only four people, in contrast with the previous system that required 12 pickers working with static shelving and printed packing lists to direct their picker's activities. "We used to pick and pack orders directly in the box," said Barry Russell, customer service manager for Nazarene Publishing House. "Now with the carousels, we're filling orders faster than we can pack them for shipment. We are quite pleased with what we see."

Manufacturers and retailers looking to reduce the impact of the slower economy should analyze their returns-handling procedures. By merging pick and return operations, businesses can reduce costs, improve overall storage and retrieval efficiency and make the best use of existing facilities.

Contact: KardexRemstar, Inc., 41 Eisenhower Drive, Westbrook, ME 04092 800-639-5805 fax: 207-854-1610 Web:

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