Handling Peak Season with Hybrid Picking Warehouse Automation

hybrid picking warehouse automation

Peak season is a difficult time to manage picking in a fulfillment center. It’s a given that orders will spike, but how high and precisely when can be a guessing game. Except this game can have serious consequences on your bottom line, especially since holiday retail sales have continued to grow yearly since 2008.

The traditional method of dealing with peaks is to hire more workers. More hands to pick with makes it easier to fulfill more orders in less time. However, people are expensive to hire, and seasonal jobs aren’t as appealing to the labor market as they used to be. 

Since the widespread adoption of warehouse automation, some organizations have started adding more robots to the floor during peak season. Usually, they add person-to-goods (P2G) bots for picking. It’s not difficult to add robots to an operation, and many providers offer robots as a service (RaaS) for this reason. But it’s not always that simple.

We’ve found that the ideal bot-to-picker ratio is between 2 and 2.5. If an automation partner offers additional bots at $1,000-3,000 per bot, that’s $2,000-7000 to put two new robots on the floor. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for providers to charge more for extra bots during widespread peaks like the holiday season, which means that the costs can add up quickly when the operation needs to add a lot of machines. Sometimes this solution doesn’t provide a solution at all.

So what’s a warehouse to do? To prepare for peaks properly, you need the ability to scale up and down in an agile, strategic manner so that you don’t over or under-prepare for your next peak. The best way to do this is to adopt a hybrid picking strategy.  

What is hybrid picking?

Hybrid picking is a warehouse automation strategy that involves the orchestrated collaboration between humans and robots to fulfill orders. It is a flexible and reliable approach that can help manage unexpected disruptions and demand at any time, not just during peak seasons.

By using hybrid picking, you can augment your existing workforce with collaborative robot (cobot) operations. With the ability to leverage both human and robotic capabilities, hybrid picking emerges as a scalable and agile solution.

The P2G robots described above can be specialized to work for both each picking and case picking. In the latter instance, they offer a strong 40% reduction in required operators for the same throughput. They’re also designed to be safe to operate alongside people, which makes them a great choice for cobot scenarios. And they’re relatively inexpensive to deploy, requiring little to no infrastructure changes. Pairing these with your workers is ideal for creating a hybrid picking environment that can be scaled to match the demand in your warehouse. 

You might’ve noticed that this solution doesn’t cleanly address the problems we started with. A hybrid approach to picking gives you more flexibility, but we’ve already stressed that adding people and bots (or agents, if you will) to the floor isn’t enough. To make the solution truly adaptive for handling peaks, you need to add orchestration.

Optimizing hybrid teams with software orchestration

In the era of Industry 4.0, the collaboration between humans and robots extends beyond physical partnership to include digital synergy. The key to seamless integration and operational efficiency lies in specialized software designed to orchestrate this collaboration. Think of this software as an opera conductor, harmonizing the workload between humans and cobots in real time. It facilitates dynamic task allocation, adaptive workflows and real-time monitoring, ensuring that each team member — whether human or robot — operates at ideal efficiency.

This synchronized operation generates valuable insights through data analytics. Organizations can optimize their operations and swiftly adapt to changing demand. Therefore, incorporating software orchestration not only enhances the scalability and agility of hybrid picking solutions but also fosters a more intelligent and adaptive operational environment.

RELATED READ: Top 4 Peak Season Challenges – and How to Tackle each

Make hybrid picking your first pick

In summary, hybrid picking is a game-changing solution that quickly delivers tangible benefits. By seamlessly integrating humans and robots and employing advanced software orchestration, warehouses can strike the perfect balance between efficiency and adaptability.

The daily advantages of hybrid picking — from enhanced efficiency and cost-effective operations to improved worker satisfaction and real-time monitoring — make it an invaluable asset for modern warehouse management. As the landscape of warehouse operations continues to evolve, embracing hybrid picking is essential for businesses aiming to remain agile, competitive and responsive to market demands.

Implementing the hybrid approach is not merely about adopting new technology; it’s about reimagining the way warehouses operate. It’s about fostering a harmonious collaboration between humans and robots to create a more intelligent, adaptive and efficient operational environment.

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