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12.01.2021

Speeding up the returns process using voice and AMR

The holiday season is over. For retailers such as Amazon, who famously extend their return window around Christmas time, this means high time for product returns.

With online shopping growing by 300% over the past 10 years and no opportunity to touch and feel a product, it is no wonder that product returns have become one of the biggest challenges facing eCommerce. Given that single product units can run into the thousands, the options for how to treat returned goods are complex.

Voice and autonomous mobile robot (AMR) technologies integrated with the warehouse management system (WMS) provide support in streamlining this process.

The decision tree of product returns

How a return is handled depends on some factors:

  • returns process managed internally vs a specialist external provider
  • faulty or damaged returned item: discard vs refurbishment (higher value item)
  • need for reinspection to ensure integrity for the next consumer
  • need for repackaging vs re-shelving ready for the next sales cycle process
  • customer requesting a return or replacement

In an ideal world, this decision tree is built into your WMS, the strategic brain of your warehouse operations. Your system would then also check your returns policy against a set of parameters, this could be if the item is still within its qualified return timeframe, for example. It should also change your policies in line with market trends.
Your decision tree eventually depends on your product mix, disposition options as well as volumes needing management which will be key to the processes and technologies you deploy.

How do voice technology and AMRs help?

Voice allows workers to move keeping hands and eyes free. The team member receives instructions through a headset connected to a device on their belt. They then confirm each step through a microphone in real time. For this reason, voice delivers 20% efficiency gains almost immediately on implementation. In a put-away or replenishment scenario, you can return products to their locations quickly and efficiently, so they can begin their sales lifecycle again.

AMRs

AMRs are autonomous mobile robots that can perform many movement activities in a warehouse without rails or tracks. Instead, they use sensors, cameras, and software to build a digital map of their environment, with embedded safety mechanisms. They speed up the returns process by handling the movement between inbound goods and put-away – decreasing the traveling time of team members, particularly within a large warehouse facility.

Voice and AMR, despite their different functions, naturally interface. Depending on the need and complexity, there are multiple functionalities you can build into the returns process, including touch screens, cameras and scanners. These are then also integrated through your WMS.

How can I make the implementation of these new technologies a success?

Obviously, the desired result of a returns system is always to maximize efficiency and meet customer expectations. However, as every warehouse is different, there is no single right-fit solution. That’s why scalability, flexibility and adaptability to the environment are crucial.

Rather than just looking at areas where automation will add value, it’s also important to look where it won’t. To work this out, your solutions partner should look at your metrics, including:

  • facility size
  • configuration
  • team
  • products
  • throughput volume
  • warehouse space and structure

Communicate the change

To successfully implement new technology, it’s essential that your employees are on board. Your workers might fear they’re being replaced by robots while robots in reality, if deployed properly, increase their productivity and their working lives. For this reason, effective change management and communications are critical to the successful deployment of AMRs. 

Key elements that drive effective change management include:

  • complete buy-in at the top of the organization
  • clear directives and understanding of the value the technology will bring
  • proper communication with those who will directly interface with the technology

Find a reliable partner

If you have identified that it is time for change, finding a trustworthy partner is crucial for a successful outcome. Choosing a provider with expertise in all areas of the supply chain provides the benefit of being able to draw from experience which can be applied in your situation. This ensures not only that this project is successful but also the freedom to grow with your operation.

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