At Invata Intralogistics, we go to painstaking lengths in every distribution center or fulfillment center design to consider the “what if” contingencies and plan for the unexpected, no matter how unlikely their occurrence. That’s because, in the world of automated packaging, “what-ifs” that aren’t planned for and properly handled as exceptions can translate to errors-out-the-door to customers — and in our world, that’s unacceptable. That’s why an integral part of each of packaging automation line we build is the exceptions processing lane. Exceptions, in our business, are packages that fail to meet a standard of 100% accuracy.
No matter how skilled your employees are, or how well they were trained during system start up, exceptions are bound to occur. Exceptions occur because of human errors, machine failures, or a lack of available data. Human errors include issues like the erroneous placement of cartons on the conveyor during maintenance, scanning the wrong item(s) into a carton, missed scans, and so on. Machine errors include mechanical failures and label misapplication, among others. A lack of available data occurs when the system software is unable to make decisions in the expected time frame due to a lack of availability of host ERP data.
When an exception is encountered, the carton bar code ID license plate is recorded on an exceptions handling list and the carton is then routed to an exceptions processing line. This process occurs prior to the carton sealing process, so that the problem can be rectified without having to damage the carton. A properly outfitted exceptions processing workstation is set up with a PC that enables the person assigned to that station to scan and identify both the carton and the inventory item(s) in the carton, re-print labels and packing lists as needed, and manifest the carton, so that it can be put back on the line for shipping.
There are a couple best practices we recommend in regard to exceptions processing. The first, is to divert properly packaged cartons from the conveyor line to an outbound shipping lane, instead of diverting the exceptions from the conveyor line to an exceptions lane. One might think this counterintuitive, but if it were done the other way around and the exceptions divert failed, then exceptions would head to shipping unheeded, until someone happened to realize the problem. It’s an unlikely scenario, but we would rather have a few properly packed and labeled cartons end up in the exceptions lane than have exceptions get out the door. This fail-safe design is something we build into all of our packaging automation systems.
A second best practice is to monitor the frequency of exceptions and set a threshold for exceptions processing that would trigger a shut down of a particular area of the line when the threshold is met. If an erroneous condition is encountered a couple times a day, it is not difficult to handle it as an exception. But if a pattern arises, it has the potential to diminish the throughput of the system, because of the labor that will be required to constantly stop and handle it, and it’s best to shut down the process and alert maintenance. Invata’s FastTrak® warehouse software has adjustable thresholds on critical processes to ensure the most efficient handling of the kind of issues that can trigger the need for exceptions processing.