Published by: Emma Lande

Boosting Order Picking Efficiency in Your Distribution Centers

SI Systems high-speed Pick-to-Tote A-Frame Dispenser

The pick-to-tote A-Frame dispenser is a highly efficient picking solution designed to simultaneously pick high volumes of broken-case orders directly into totes or cartons without requiring any labor during the picking process. The primary labor contribution in this system is focused on replenishing its channels with the necessary order items.

The A-Frame has a remarkable throughput, fulfilling up to 3,600 orders per hour with an impressive pick accuracy rate of 99.9%. What sets it apart is that it achieves this level of performance without requiring any labor input. Its high speed, accuracy, and labor-saving capabilities make it a sought-after solution for efficient order fulfillment operations.

An A-Frame system is built by positioning frames of vertically inclined channels on both sides of a conveyor belt, resulting in its characteristic A-shaped appearance. These channels serve as holding units where items are stacked, waiting to be dispensed into a tote to fulfill a customer’s order fully or partially.
These adjustable vertical channels hold order items to be dispensed as required by an order.
A control module interfaces with several host systems to receive orders and upload pick reports. 
A Pick-to-Tote picks orders directly into moving totes.
A conveyor belt traveling through the A-Frame moves picked orders to a packing station. 

INFORMATION EXCHANGE:  A-FRAME CONTROL UNIT & WMSAn A-Frame picking process involves a systematic exchange of data between its control unit and a host Warehouse Management System (WMS). The nature of this data exchange depends on whether the WMS is configured to associate an order with a specific tote, commonly referred to as "marrying" an order to a tote, or not. 

A key decision for A-Frame clients is whether to "marry" an order to a specific tote or not.  The choice made here determines how information is exchanged and processed between the WMS and the A-Frame system during the picking process. Let’s look at two common data exchange scenarios:  


Customer order and pick report information
transmitted via shared folders.
  1. A customer order sequence is downloaded from a WMS to the A-Frame system via shared folders. 
  2. When a pick process is triggered, the A-Frame sequences the picking of orders to align with the delivery schedule before initiating the picking process.   
  3. The A-Frame system sends a pick report back to the WMS. 


Barcode reader sends pick information to the A-Frame system

  1. The pick process is initiated when a tote or cleated belt, which contains discrete customer order information encoded in a bar code, passes by a reader into the pick machine.
  2. Pick information is transmitted to the A-Frame’s control system.
  3. The A-Frame signals channels to eject associated order items into the tote or on the belt. 
  4. The A-Frame system sends a pick report back to the WMS.

The three main configurations of A-Frame order dispensers are:

✔ Pick-to-Tote 
✔ Pick-to-Belt
✔ Mobile A-Frame


The Pick-to-Belt A-Frame operates by ejecting orders onto a central flighted conveyor belt that runs through the A-Frame system. 
The belt transports the orders to a transfer zone, where they are deposited into waiting totes before being transported to the packing station for shipping preparation.                                                               
Although it is an integral part of the pick-to-belt system, the transfer poses several challenges during the picking process. These challenges include a higher risk of order contamination and inaccuracy, an increased need for laborers, and a longer overall picking process. 

Now, let's explore a potential solution to address the inefficiencies associated with the Pick-to-Belt system.

The Pick-to-Tote system is the fastest of all the three A-Frame configurations, with picking speeds of up to 3,600 orders per hour, and 100% labor-free picking process.   

The pick-to-tote system operates on a two-step process beginning with the ejection of order items from the dispensers into moving totes.  Fully fulfilled totes are then directed to the packing station for shipping preparation. 
By picking directly into a moving tote, the Pick-to-Tote A-Frame system eliminates the need for a transfer zone, which is imperative in the Pick-to-Belt system. This streamlined process minimizes unnecessary handling and improves overall operational efficiency ultimately reducing labor and operational costs.  Quick Facts PDF

The Mobile A-Frame dispenser is a smaller and portable Pick-to-Tote A-Frame that was designed to complement manual labor in smaller distribution centers.  It is a flexible pick machine made of a set of pick frames that can be grown over time as business grows or as resources allow. 
The mobile A-Frame is shipped fully assembled in modules of up to 16 dispensing channels. The controlling ‘primary’ module has an in-built control unit that handles the picking activities of an additional seven ‘secondary’ frames.  This system picks into a moving tote on a conveyor belt and has a maximum pick rate of 2,800 orders per hour. 

This portable Pick-to-Tote A-Frame solution has proven especially beneficial for meeting demand during peak seasons, automating the laborious kitting process for subscription glam boxes or introducing season SKUs.  The Mobile A-Frame offers many operational advantages that allow warehouses to maintain streamlined operations in the face of increasing workloads. Quick Facts PDF
Zero pick labor requirement:
The pick-to-tote A-Frame is 100% fully automated and does not require human labor to accomplish order picking, save for just a handful to replenish products into the system’s channels.  
“Drawing from my own experience, a proficient replenisher can effectively replenish up to 2,000 orders per hour. This means that only a small team of replenishers is needed to handle an A-Frame system operating at full capacity,” said Dennis Frederick, a senior installations engineer at SI Systems.  

Up to 99% pick accuracy:
If the developers of the Pick-to-tote A-Frame had a few objectives in mind, one of them was certainly a zero tolerance towards pick inaccuracies. The system incorporates precision sensors and randomized accuracy check zones to make sure that customers are receiving the right orders, and distribution centers are not inundated with processing returned orders. 
Up to 3,600 orders/hour:  
The quest for automation in order picking is largely driven by the desire for increased speed and efficiency. The pick-to-tote A-Frame stands out in this regard, as it can achieve remarkable throughput of up to 3,600 orders per hour. 
While speed can enhance productivity, it can also lead to potential bottlenecks and congestion in subsequent stages of the fulfillment process if not managed effectively. That said, it is essential to balance the picking rate with the capacities and capabilities of the downstream operations.

Up to 1,536 active, fully automated pick locations:  
To understand the remarkable efficiency of the A-Frame dispenser in handling extensive picking workloads, one needs to envision a piece-picking robot equipped with 1,536 simultaneously active arms. Each of these arms automatically and independently picks at a maximum speed of 3,600 orders per hour.  Furthermore, all these arms seamlessly operate under a unified control system, ensuring smooth coordination and synchronization. 
This illustrates the remarkable autonomy, speed and efficiency of the A-Frame picking process. However, it is important to note that unlike the robotic piece picking system, the A-Frame stands out as a self-contained system that incorporates all its components into one compact unit. 

Space optimization:
While robotic arms have varying ranges of motion that require lots of space to function unobstructed, the A-Frame is self-contained, compact, and stationary. It can also take advantage of vertical mezzanine spaces to open more workspace.   

Low cost of ownership:
When assessing the total cost of ownership for a picking solution, which includes acquisition costs and maintenance expenses over a defined period, the A-Frame stands out as having one of the most economical ownership costs when compared to robotic picker alternatives. Its straightforward deployment process, coupled with its limited number of moving parts that require minimal maintenance, contribute to its cost-effectiveness.
“Installations dating 40 years are still running like new,” said Frederick, who has installed hundreds of A-Frames over the years.  “A-Frame clients not only benefit from cost savings but also enjoy the peace of mind that comes with a reliable and hassle-free system,” he said. 
The initial crucial step to determine if the A-Frame is ideal for your order picking project is to understand the composition of your SKU set or your clients' SKU set. This entails assessing how most of your products are packaged and their physical dimensions. This assessment is essential as it will determine if the products can be effectively stacked and reliably dispensed from the A-Frame channels. 

SI Systems uses dozens of customizable A-Frame channels to accommodate as many clients’ products as possible. Generally, your inventory should fall within the following dimensions:
American System Metric System
  Width:   0.6 inches to 10.5 inches
  Height:  0.4 inches to 4.5 inches
  Length:  2.0 inches to 12.4 inches
  Weight:  ≤ 1 pound 
  Width:   15 mm to 267 mm
  Height:  10 mm to 114 mm
  Length:  51 mm to 315 mm
  Weight:  ≤ 455 grams 

If a good percentage of your piece picking products fit within these ranges, it’s time to have a discussion with an engineer.  

CAVEAT:  Always Test a Sample of your SKUs!
If you are an integrator and you strongly feel that the A-Frame is the ideal picking solution for a specific project, it is advisable to request your clients to avail testing samples earlier on in your search to allow your vendor to determine if the A-Frame is indeed the right choice for your needs.  

It's important to understand that even if your SKUs meet or appear to meet the required dimensions, there are additional factors that can still make them unfit for the A-Frame.  Let’s consider a few of them: 
  • Shrink wrapped products or those with high-friction surfaces are most likely to resist the dispensers ‘push’ during the pick process, potentially leading to product damage and pick errors.
  • Glass items that are not boxed carry the risk of causing breakage to other items in the tote as they land in the tote.
  • Packages that have raised or lipped lids, like the Pringles packaging or food cans, have a high likelihood of nesting into each within the A-Frame channel, potentially leading to product jamming and pick errors. 
The application engineers at SI Systems consistently seek inventive ways to address situations that may pose challenges during the picking process.  Engage in an open discussion with them, while also contributing your own creative ideas, to determine whether what appears to be a constraining factor is just a small creative adjustment away from making your entire SKU set eligible for A-Frame picking. 

Ideal Products sizes for the A-Frame 

In today's landscape, numerous Third-Party Logistics providers (3PLs) and company-owned distribution centers are incorporating the Pick-to-Tote A-Frame into their existing order fulfillment systems. This integration serves the purpose of accelerating and optimizing the fulfillment processes for the large volume of eCommerce orders they receive daily, often reaching tens of thousands. 

By implementing the high-speed Pick-to-Tote A-Frame systems, warehouses that distribute fast moving consumer products have achieved significant improvements in operational efficiencies allowing them to meet their customers’ unflinching demands for fast and accurate deliveries:  

  • Pharmaceutical
  • Veterinary
  • Eye care
  • Beauty & Cosmetics
  • Stationery
  • Confectionery
  • Packaged meal delivery services
A major cosmetics supplier streamlines picking operations for four warehouses with the Pick-to-Tote A-Frame Order Dispenser.

If your order fulfillment operation requires high throughput and aims to minimize labor costs through automation, incorporating an A-Frame automatic dispenser can prove to be a valuable choice in achieving that objective. Contact a member of SI’s engineering today if you are thinking about implementing the A-Frame picking solution.  


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