As pressure mounts to get products out the door faster and with more precision, company leaders are increasingly looking for ways to improve the warehouse picking process, and technology is often the answer to the problem. Industry experts say most picking processes involve some type of automation these days, and that companies expect those processes to evolve over time, increasing in technological complexity. But in today's fast-paced business world, experts also say it helps to slow down and get back to basics. When it comes to picking, that means examining your company's process, workflow, information systems, and metrics before jumping into advanced forms of automation—especially robotics—when considering a system upgrade or enhancement.
"Everything is getting faster. We're really at the edge of moving into the next generation of technology in the warehouse," says Norm Saenz, managing director for material handling systems integrator St. Onge Co. Saenz says he is seeing growing interest in high-tech automated systems that can speed up and streamline picking, especially as companies struggle to develop their e-commerce and omnichannel business strategies. And although technology can solve many of those problems, he cautions that companies should not "jump to the technology before making sure process and flow is good. You don't want to automate a bad process. It's important to take a good look at everything [involved in the picking process] so [you can] make the right decision on the next step."
"Everything" includes process design, information systems capabilities, facility layout and equipment, and feedback for measuring progress and identifying problems. Once a company has all of that buttoned up, technology is the next natural step, experts agree.
"Once you've done all [the other] things, it's time to ask 'What are the pieces of technology and automation that might make sense to invest in?'" Saenz says. "Most of this is driven by the push into e-commerce. Large companies that are used to shipping large amounts now have to handle smaller, more frequent orders, and automation gives them the support they need."
Here are four steps Saenz and others say can help companies evaluate their existing picking systems and determine their future requirements.
1. START WITH A PROCESS
The first step to improving any picking system is for company leaders to take a look at their existing process and find simple ways to make it better. One classic example is to implement a batch-picking process for e-commerce orders. This means that instead of filling an entire order, a picker will pick a group (or batch) of orders all at once, one stock-keeping unit (SKU) at a time.
"Some of the quickest wins [are from] batch picking," Saenz explains. "You take someone picking one and have them pick more. It's important to take a look at the basics of how the process is being run and see if there are opportunities for batch picking."
Mark Neuwirth, executive vice president of business development for order-picking solutions provider Unex Manufacturing, adds that accuracy and throughput should guide the evaluation. Any changes or enhancements to the process must improve both elements, he explains.
"Any pick system—whether it be manual, automated, or a combination of both—must deliver 100 percent accuracy at maximum achievable throughputs," Neuwirth says. "Achieving 100 percent accuracy at the cost of throughput does not deliver profits. Achieving a maximum throughput at the cost of accuracy does not keep customers. The process of choosing a new pick system is akin to getting the right water temperature at a spigot, with the hot being accuracy and the cold being throughput. Your picking-system choice must be the right temperature that delivers a constant flow of both."
2. PUT THE RIGHT TECHNOLOGY IN PLACE
The next fundamental step is to consider the capabilities of your information technology (IT) system. Companies running homegrown or legacy systems may find it difficult to implement new processes, for example, simply because their systems were not designed to accommodate today's advanced software and applications. Saenz points to batch picking as an example here, as well.
"You need to understand the limitations you have on the software side," he explains. "A lot of systems out there may be limited in doing batch picking, for example. And if your system can't do it, you'd have to make some changes or adjustments."
That often means investing in a more advanced software package or a warehouse management system (WMS) that is designed to manage inventory, orders, and people, he adds.
"There are a lot of legacy systems in the market that can only do so much," Saenz explains. "At some point, you need to make a change. The step to a WMS is a big one, but it's needed at some point."
3. CONSIDER LAYOUT, EQUIPMENT, METRICS
Next comes facility layout and design. It's important to ensure that material flows through the distribution center logically, and that workers have an efficient pick path. Proper signs and labeling can help improve productivity by leading workers to the right location, Saenz points out. Proper slotting of products—that is, where and how you store each item to be picked—is also important. Some items may be most easily accessible on shelves, while other items may require a carton-flow system (racking in which items are loaded from the back and slide forward to replenish what is picked) and still others may require full pallets. Design consultants and equipment manufacturers can help DC managers navigate the process and determine the most efficient layout and combination of equipment.
"We're targeting usually a week's worth of items in a pick location—[and that may require] three or more different types of storage equipment," Saenz explains, adding that designs should limit congestion and travel distance to improve productivity. "Layout, flow, equipment, slotting ... these are all the types of things that we'll look at before we start looking at a ton of automation."
Worker training is another crucial piece of the puzzle. Any system enhancement should include comprehensive training on the picking process as well as the systems and equipment the worker will be using, Saenz and others emphasize. Measuring progress is important as well, and the experts say it should be an ongoing part of the picking and fulfillment process. Common metrics include order-picking accuracy, on-time shipments, and order-fill rate. The goal is to be consistent and act on the results, according to Neuwirth.
"[You have to] keep checking that spigot," he says. "There are many measurable results in a good picking operation that need to be monitored, but, simply put, if the water gets too hot or too cold and you can no longer get it to that right temperature, it may be time for an upgrade. In today's world, it's a daily part of your operational process. Monitoring customer satisfaction against your operational goals of cost per order ... is a constant that allows you to adjust your process as required."
4. PLAN FOR AUTOMATION, ROBOTICS
Companies that have already run through these steps and are confident their underlying processes are sound may be ready for the next step: automation. Their first action should be to look at the many proven technologies in the marketplace that can speed and streamline picking, Neuwirth and Saenz say. Converting from carts and lift trucks to conveyor systems is one example.
"Conveyor technology is usually the first thing people want to incorporate—to replace carts and lift trucks where it makes sense," Saenz says. "There are a lot of ways to innovate with conveyor to move product through the pick area and to the shipping dock, for instance, instead of someone pushing a cart or driving a truck."
Other proven technologies include voice-picking systems—which incorporate headsets, microphones, and voice-recognition software to free up workers' hands for picking tasks—and pick-to-light systems, which use lights to direct workers to the proper items to pick from shelves or bins. Many such systems include "put walls," which are becoming a popular option for managing batch picking, Saenz adds. Workers distribute multi-line orders to a wall of shelves or bins that is also open and accessible to workers on the other side, who then sort the items into individual orders.
Other more advanced "proven technologies" include shuttle systems, carousels, and automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) that can help companies save both space and labor. Such systems can get expensive—in the millions of dollars in some cases, the experts say. But they also note that adding automation can be done in phases based on a company's needs and business projections. Above all, they say, companies should focus on getting the best return on their technology investment.
Joel Reed, CEO of IAM (Intelligent Automated Machines) Robotics, which offers robotic picking and retrieval systems, agrees that advanced technologies can be added in steps and that they can offer a compelling return on investment (ROI), especially for companies ready to take their e-commerce business to the next level. He says automation is becoming a necessity for many companies to remain competitive, and that companies should focus on flexibility and scalability when implementing new solutions.
"No picking technology can handle all products, picking profiles, or warehouse environments," he explains. "Mobile picking technology, by definition, allows customers to start small—focus on the applications where picking success is guaranteed and a portion of an operation can be automated at a compelling ROI—and then scale as either the technology improves or where operations change to leverage more of a technology's capability."