Recently, I have visited a customer who had a new piece of equipment that he was extremely excited about.  He told me it was a warehouse in itself and could maintain thousands of his items in a very small footprint.  He took me out to the warehouse where I saw a 30 foot tower that was extremely tall, but it did take up only about 10 feet in width and 10 feet in length.  He called it a VLM or as I later found out, it is a Vertical Lift Module.  As he explained it to me, it seemed like an amusement park ferris wheel where the people on the wheel were replaced with inventory.  This machine as he bragged, is able to store over 3,000 of his items and allow users to pick his orders with better accuracy and speed than ever before.

He showed me a demo of it by selecting an order that needed to be picked on the display screen and the machine started to make a roaring sound.  What he told me was that was the shelves in the machine moving around looking for an item on the order.  As the sound started to dissipate, a door opened up and a shelf popped out behind it.  When the shelf stopped moving, a laser beam pointed at an item on the shelf and on the LED display screen on the wall, the item id, description and quantity needed appeared.   The picker was then given time to pick the quantity from the shelf and hit a button on the display screen to denote his completion.  The picker then turned around and a particular basket on a rack containing a total of 15 baskets was flashing with a light to tell the picker where to place the quantity.  As I was not paying attention to the machine while watching the picker, the shelf disappeared back into the machine and the door from which it came closed.  At that point, the machine began to make its noise again as the shelves were once again spinning inside.  A few seconds later, the process began again with the door opening and the shelf presenting itself and the laser pointed to the item.

This process happened over again until all the items were picked for the order.  What I later learned during the process is that we were only picking 1 order at a time but in fact, this machine could pick items for multiple items at the same time thereby reducing the amount of searching the machine has to do to fulfill the orders.

I was truly amazed at the speed and the accuracy of the machine and how the picker was basically picking these orders without having to move from a 10 foot section of the much larger warehouse.  After setting up the first machine, this company realized such a big savings, they went out and purchased 2 more to enable them to pick even more items.  And as they plugged in the additional units, they just came on line and made the process even more efficient as the machines could be spinning and ready for the picker rather than having the picker wait for the machine to find the product.

What I later found out, was that these machines do take a rather long time to organize, program and load up the inventory to get started as it is important to layout the inventory in a way to maximize the number of product on a shelf and depending on the products sold, how to best organize like products where the only variable could be size or color.

One area where was able to aid with this process is that it was important to feed open orders to the machine based on the customer’s ERP solution and then to take the picking information back from the machine in order to easily fulfill the shipments and reduce inventory.  This project was definitely a situation where technology and software worked hand and hand to help automate a process that is prown to errors and requires much time as the picker would normally search the warehouse looking of the product.  Now the picker is really able to stay in one place and have the product come to them.