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Is Kitting Automation the Way Forward?

By November 24, 2023November 29th, 2023Fulfillment, Insights, Logistics
Published Date: Friday, Nov 24, 2023
Last Updated on: Wednesday, Nov 29, 2023
A kitting warehouse getting ready to kit.

For businesses in the CPG market, selecting a kitting provider is a critical decision.

The wrong choice can lead to a process that is inefficient, with inconsistent quality and standardization, or one that is prohibitively expensive and inflexible.

Manual kitting, automated kitting and a mix of both — known as “light touch kitting” — each have their own benefits and drawbacks that will make a partner more or less suitable, depending on your requirements. In this article we compare these three approaches to help you determine which will be the best fit for your product and your position in the market.

What is kitting automation?

Kitting automation is the use of technology to assemble product kits without manual labor. This can include everything from simple bundled items, such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, to more complex kits, such as multi-brand beauty boxes or bundled nutrition packs.

Automation is already present in some form in the vast majority of CPG companies. According to PMMI, 84% are already automating the kitting process in some areas, like storage and retrieval, warehouse management systems and picking systems, and this figure is expected to rise to 93% over the next five years.

A fulfillment warehouse getting ready to kit.

The three kitting approaches

Manual kitting
Fully automated kitting
Light touch automated kitting

Manual kitting

Manual kitting involves human operators assembling kits or packages by hand. The most traditional of the three options, it is commonly used by smaller companies who perform the majority of their kitting and order fulfillment in-house.

The pros and cons of manual kitting

Cost: Manual kitting requires far less upfront investment than automated kitting as there is no need to purchase expensive machinery – or pay for energy overheads and running costs long-term.
Speed: Compared to fully automated processes, manual kitting is far slower, and as a run of kits gets longer, the balance of cost-effectiveness begins to shift in favor of automation. After a certain point, the wages of manual kitting workers will exceed the cost of purchasing automation equipment and the energy it uses.
Flexibility: Manual kitting offers a great degree of flexibility when it comes to the contents of the kit. If the items you include in your kits vary on a regular basis, or the contents are tailored/personalized to the recipient, manual kitting is ideal.
Quality/accuracy: Manual kitting is much less consistent in quality than automated kitting. Humans will never perform a task in the same way twice – tiny variations will always be present. When entire kitting floor spaces are involved, the combined variations are much greater than what 10 identical machines, each repeating the task thousands of times, would produce. This can lead to issues with standardization and a greater number of substandard kits caused by human error, potentially impacting customer satisfaction.
Scalability: Manual kitting is susceptible to seasonal fluctuations in volume of production. Scaling up is slow, as it will require hiring and training more workers, which takes time. Scaling down will either make the process financially unviable (the same wage bill for a reduction in earnings) or will require layoffs.

Manual kitting is best suited to artisan products or specialized kits but often falls short in more extensive, high-volume operations.

A kitting establishment using manual kitting to package their client's products.

Fully automated kitting

At the other end of the spectrum is fully automated kitting. This method utilizes sophisticated machinery and robotics to pick, place and assemble items into kits.

The pros and cons of fully automated kitting

Cost: Fully automated kitting requires a significant upfront investment, and automated machinery is notoriously expensive. This is particularly true for any equipment required to perform precise actions such as robotics or intelligent placement tools that can read SKU numbers.
Speed: Automated kitting equipment is far faster than manual kitting, resulting in greater throughput and making it well-suited to high-volume tasks with little to no variation or customization.
Flexibility: Automated kitting systems are best for performing the exact same task repeatedly, efficiently and without deviation. What they are not suited to is change. If the kit or its component SKUs change at any time or the manufacturer wants any significant degree of customization, the automated warehouse kitting process will be immediately bottlenecked. Any variation in the run will require expensive retooling and reprogramming, greatly increasing costs.
Quality/accuracy: Due to the removal of human error and how well-suited automation is to performing repetitive tasks with identical results, automated kitting produces higher-quality and more standardized products.
Scalability: Automated kitting is much more easily scaled than manual kitting. Scaling down operations only involves producing fewer kits. The equipment has already been purchased. With no wages to be paid, the main operation costs are energy and maintenance, both of which will vary according to the level of use. A machine that is not operating requires no power and suffers minimal wear.

Automated kitting is best suited to long runs with very few changes to the contents or design of the kit.

Light touch automated kitting

Light touch automation inhabits the middle ground between manual and fully automated kitting. This method combines human labor and automation to provide the best of both worlds. ​​

The pros and cons of light touch kitting

Cost: Often the most expensive pieces of automation equipment are those that handle the packing of individual SKUs into a kit. Forgoing these in favor of persisting with human packers greatly increases the cost savings of light touch automation. However, the cost may still be marginally more expensive than manual kitting.
Speed: Light touch automation can handle repetitive tasks like box construction and conveying kits to the next stage of manual assembly. This greatly improves efficiency, and speeds up the production rate dramatically when compared to fully manual kitting.
Flexibility: With light touch automation, human workers will still perform all hand-intensive tasks requiring additional care and greater precision. They can account for any varying product configurations or customization needed, providing flexibility that would be incredibly expensive to automate.
Quality/accuracy: Automated assistance technologies like put to light systems reduce the scope for human error, while also increasing efficiency and accuracy by removing the need for humans to perform repetitive tasks.
Scalability: With a smaller workforce than a fully manual process, and the increased efficiency brought by fully automating portions of the assembly process, light touch automated kitting is easy to scale up and down. The number of extra staff needed to scale up will be far fewer than a manual process, reducing the time needed to hire and train new workers. At the same time, the lower number of workers results in a lower wage bill and optimizes space usage, so the process can be scaled further before it becomes financially impractical and cutbacks are needed.

In the vast majority of cases, light touch automation will be the best option for kitting. 

When compared to manual kitting it will be marginally more expensive, and this may not be justifiable for a very limited run of kits. However, the consistency and quality of the finished kits will be far superior, they can be produced more efficiently, and production can be scaled up and down much more easily.

A kitting system supported by human and automation.

Which kitting option is best for my business?

With the benefits of kitting listed earlier, as well as their drawbacks, there are a series of questions to ask yourself. Each will look at an element of your kitting requirements and your answer will rule out one of the three production methods (or at least indicate one of the choices to you more than the others):

What volume of kits are you looking to produce?

For low kit volumes, fully automated kitting will be an unnecessary expense. The cost of automation equipment and the time lost due to line changeovers makes investing for a small run impractical, and will also raise the cost of outsourcing the run to a third-party provider. 

For high kit volumes, manual kitting will be inefficient and costly. Manually kitting at a large volume will require a significant workforce, and since it is also slower than automated kitting, you will need to factor in the wages of those workers over a long period of time.

How regularly will the makeup of the kits be varied? Are you planning to offer any customization or tailoring of kits to consumers?

If you plan for your kits to be changed up regularly, the costs of reprogramming and retooling to accommodate this will make fully automated kitting non-viable.
If your kits will remain the same with no changes planned in the medium to long term, automation is more efficient and cost-effective than manual kitting.

How complex is the kit?

Complex kits will require more sophisticated equipment if the kitting is to be fully automated. Intricate technology needed for fine-detail elements of the kitting process is likely to be incredibly expensive. It will also require more maintenance and costly reprogramming if elements of your kits or SKUs change.

How consistent is the demand for your kits?

If the seasonality of your kits means production needs to scale up and down throughout the year, manual kitting may not be suitably agile to maximize your revenue production. Additional workers will need to be trained, which will take time and drain profits. On top of that, if your kits are more complex, there may be a drop in quality as production increases, because new workers won’t have the same skills as those doing the job year-round.

How great an emphasis do you place on the quality of your kits?

Due to human error and the inherent variation in the ways individuals will perform the same task, kits produced manually will be less standardized in their appearance and more likely to have quality issues. This will become more apparent at times when production output is increased, as the faster work rate will likely lead to more mistakes.
a kit being taped by manual kitting.

Final thoughts

If you are looking to outsource your kitting to a third party, a partner that uses light touch automation will supply you with the highest quality and flexibility for the most competitive price point. Nearly on par with full automation for quality, accuracy and speed, with a price point closer to that of manual kitting, it is the ideal middle ground that provides the best of both worlds.

At Harte Hanks, we are constantly refining and improving our light touch automated kitting to compete more effectively at both ends of the scale. If you’d like to learn more about how we can ensure your kits are created quickly, accurately and cost effectively, or if you’d like to discuss your next kitting program, contact us today.

Contact us today