According to a dairy industry case study, 55% of warehouse operating costs and 70% of operating time go toward order picking. The cost of mispicking or short shipment has a direct impact on customer satisfaction, operational costs and future revenue potential. Industry challenges like the shortage of warehouse space and skilled workers — as well as the demand for increased productivity, quicker order fulfillment and SKU growth, all while maintaining a focus on keeping overall costs low — are creating tremendous pressure within warehouses and distribution centers.
Order picking should be quick and easy, no matter how large or small your picks are per day. Reducing the time from 15 seconds to 10 seconds per pick makes a big difference. There are several order picking methods available: traditional, semi-automated and fully automated order picking.
What is order picking?
Order picking is the process of locating and pulling product from your warehouse inventory to fulfill a customer order. From there, product is packed and shipped, eventually being put in the customer’s hands. While this process may sound simple, it is often more complicated than many people believe. How do you ensure you’re picking a product in the most efficient and productive way? How do you keep up with the ever-evolving challenges in the supply chain?
Operators pick, replenish and let-down items within their specified work zone for their approved operating equipment. Manual machines allow access to low-level and high-velocity product placement. As a general rule, employees should not pick, pack or handle items larger than themselves (40 to 80 pounds is ideal) and operate within best practices.
Retail and businesses selling fast-moving consumer goods with high SKU counts tend to benefit from traditional order picking methods. Traditional picking systems provide verifiable accuracy without expensive equipment and massive investments.
Within the traditional order picking approach, there are several picking methods. The most common ones include:
- Paper picking: Paper-based order picking, or label processing, relies on selectors to perform picks based on paper pick lists, put-away labels, printed Value Added Service (VAS) instructions and other paper documents. Paper or label processing is thought of as a good fit for smaller operations with relatively straightforward transaction requirements.
- Single order picking: The selector is provided one order at a time and then goes through the warehouse to find each item on the pick list before completing the order. Route optimization is not typically provided.
- Batch picking:The selector picks multiple orders at a time. The picking environment allows the selector to pick SKUs required for multiple orders at a time. This minimizes travel time and increases picking efficiencies.
- Zone picking method: This divides the warehouse into several zones and assigns selectors to only work within a specific zone. Each zone can use its own type of technology and storage system, depending on what would work best for the SKUs and storage technology used in that location.However, it does have a low pick ratio.
- Wave picking method: This method is most commonly used when there are a large number of SKUs and a high ratio of similar-looking packages. It allows for all products to be picked from what appears to be random locations. A sorter brings common items of the same order together to the packing area.
Semi-automated pick options work alongside traditional order picking methods to increase picking efficiencies.
- Voice picking: This voice-directed picking system allows the selectors to work hands-free. The warehouse management system (WMS) sends the voice pick receiver the pick list. The order selector is directed by the voice pick receiver on where to go, what part to pick and how many pieces to pick for each customer order. The operator will verbally confirm his/her pick location with a phase such as “check digit” and confirm the pick quantity and customer with a verbal command such as “2, Alpha.”
- RF scanning: This method involves a wireless handheld device that uses a radio frequency wireless network to communicate with the WMS. The WMS sends the pick list to the scanning terminal. Once the selector has picked an item against the pick list and has scanned the barcode, it sends a message back to the WMS for pick verification. Once the selector has completed his/her pick list the WMS will send the next pick list to the selector.
- Pick-to-light technologies: This method utilizes colored LED lights to indicate which products are ready to be picked or placed throughout the warehouse, allowing operators to move quickly and confidently from one location to the next with easy-to-follow visual cues. Pick-to-light is traditionally used in conjunction with scanning or voice picking solutions.
Automated order picking follows the process of placing, picking and retrieving items from their specified storage areas by using systems that integrate software with equipment and work alongside WMS/Warehouse Control System (WCS). Automated picking is seen to be more productive and efficient as it eliminates or reduces the need for manual labor. It can also be more precise as the WMS integration reduces the chance of human error.
Due to the efficiency and adaptability, automated order picking methods are great for businesses in a wide variety of industries. As with the traditional order picking approach, there are a variety of automated picking methods:
- Zone picking: Each order picker is assigned to a specific zone and will only pull product from that area. The shipping container will move through the zones via a conveyor belt.
- Automated case picking: This approach uses an automated crane to pick up heavy or large cases. The crane can transport, lift, store, replenish and pick. This method allows for much higher shelving and better use of warehouse space.
- Pallet picking: This method combines pallet conveyors, automated cranes and sorting systems. Ideal for businesses that mainly receive and ship palletized products and cases, pallet picking ensures product is safely moved and warehouse space is used efficiently.
- Batch picking:The selectorremains in one location while horizontal and vertical carousels deliver the required SKUs to the worker.
Whether you opt for a traditional, semi-automated or fully automated approach to order picking, each method offers benefits for your warehouse. As a general best practice, establish goals and tracking systems for stockouts and misplaced items to help avoid wasting time and effort by picking. Additionally, grouping items with similar SKUs in the same area will help reduce picking time and ensure the space can handle high-volume activity. Finally, it is important to optimize. Whether it is selecting the right container for product or choosing between traditional, semi-automated or fully automated methods, identifying and addressing your specific needs keeps the warehouse running efficiently and productively.
As your business evolves and grows, your order picking process should, too. Check in regularly with warehouse managers and workers to see how your current system is working and if there’s room for improvement.