Driven by challenges in many markets finding and retaining distribution center labor, rising labor rates and the high cost of fulfillment for ecommerce orders, many shippers are looking at technology, including robotics, to close the gaps.

SCDigest has reported extensively, for example, on the growing interest in mobile robots in distribution, where in efulfillment they are not too far away from mainstream status.

At Amazon, the CartonWrap system works in parallel with another system called SmartPac, which automatically places items in envelopes for mailing with the USPS.

Shuttle systems, employing another approach to "goods to picker" processes, are available from a wide number of materials handling vendors and have seen significant adoption.

There is also high interest in automated case and piece picking technologies, though these generally still face some technical hurdles and are still in comparative infancy in terms of deployment at shippers, though examples for case picking especially certainly are out there.

One process that has seen little automation to date is the order packing process, either moving items from a plastic tote into a shipping carton or adding dunnage to orders picked directly into cartons, sealing them, and applying a shipping label. In some cases, individual items are scanned to ensure order accuracy as part of the packing process. According to a report this week by Reuters, Amazon is moving forward to automate the packing line with technology from an Italian company that will eventually lead to the loss of a large number of the tedious jobs in its fulfillment centers. And it turns out several Amazon rivals have tested or deployed the same system in their facilities. Reuters says Amazon has deployed the system from a company called CMC Srl that scans the bar codes of items coming on a conveyor from picking, then surrounds the items wiith a corrugate box built to size for each order's items.



The items to be shipped come on conveyor belts perpendicular to a long steam of fan-folded carton corrugate. The shipping cartons are formed to the precise size, so no dunnage is required, at least for items suitable to go through the machine. It appears if multiple items are in an order, they must be bagged or otherwise consolidate to go through the CartonWrap. The system can also print and insert packing slips into the cartons. CMC says its CartonWrap system can produce 600 to 700 boxes per hour, as much as four to five times the rate of human order packers. The system require one person to load customer orders, another to stock cardboard and glue and a technician to occasional jams or other issues. Each system is reported to cost about $1 million.

A visit to the CMS web site finds it says the CartonWrap "is designed to help companies that use large amounts of boxes of different sizes, such as ecommerce and fulfillment companies that need to send out several boxes of different sizes according to the orders received."

At Amazon, the CartonWrap system works in parallel with another system called SmartPac, which automatically places items in envelopes for mailing with the USPS.

Cardboard Carton Machine

Many Amazon FCs have two dozen packers, Reuters reported, numbers which could be dramatically reduced at each facility if the systems are widely deployed.

However, given overall job growth in the FCs and high turnover, and most displaced packers will easily find other jobs at each automated facility, Amazon says. In addition, CMC is constrained in the number of machines it can produce. Reuters also says Amazon does not like the fact that the need for an on-site technician to troubleshoot operational problems. Both these facts may slow Amazon's rollout. And it turns out Amazon may be battling its rivals for some of that CMC capacity. Chinese ecommerce giant JD.com and US-based Shutterfly have tired the machines, a sourced told Reuters, as has Walmart. Walmart started 3.5 years ago and has since installed the machines in several US locations, another source told Reuters. SCDigest notes that when faced with a potential capacity crunch for production of the mobile robots from Kiva Systems, Amazon simply bought the company for a princely sum in 2012.

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