Britt Miller

Britt Miller

  • Wonolo

A variety of recent technological advancements have completely transformed the way that warehouses look at their processes, particularly in terms of supply chain optimization, forecasting, demand planning, and remote communication. With cutting-edge software solutions like warehouse management systems (WMS) becoming cheaper and automation becoming more accessible to operations of all sizes and industries, clearly, the “future of warehousing” is happening right this minute. Nevertheless, warehouses are not yet in the position to abandon the very processes that serve as their foundations.

Take the issue of picking, for example. It’s a process the supports the very framework of modern fulfillment practices, but, even with all of today’s technological gains, the practice is still a struggle for many scaling operations. As a matter of fact, Professor René de Koster, whom GWP Group hails as “an eminent expert on [warehouse order picking]” says this of the practice:

“Measured in time and money – order picking is, without doubt, the most costly activity in a typical warehouse. It is also the activity that plays the biggest role in customer satisfaction with the warehouse – and in the final analysis the entire supply chain.”

Warehouse Picking Strategies

So, why is warehouse order picking the most “costly activity in a typical warehouse?” Amware Logistics has a theory. The firm says that unnecessary “traveling” (a.k.a. nonstrategic steps taken by pickers) can “compromise up to 50% of the picking process and up to half [a] warehouse’s labor costs.” It’s just one of the ways in which operations can fall victim to non-streamlined processes, but, fortunately, there are also plenty of other ways to improve upon order picking, too. Here are 4 fool-proof methods you can use to optimize your order picking processes today:

Implement a Pick to Light System

Pick to Light, hands-free, warehouse picking process optimization systems that direct workers to items using a series of lighting cues, have been around for years, but it’s the adjoining technologies, such as mobile scanners paired with a WMS/WES, that still make them so powerful in today’s warehousing landscape.

As mentioned, one of the main reasons why order picking is such a costly process for warehouses is because, when left ‘unstrategized’, it can account for significant levels of “traveling” – i.e., unnecessary steps by pickers. But, with Pick to Light, the system automatically optimizes movements, which can be programmed to fit your chosen technique. The systems have also been proven to reduce human error, a big issue for those still operating on low-tech levels.

Consider Adopting the Latest Warehouse Picking Automation

There’s no escaping the fact that warehouse picking automation is the future. After all, the most influential fulfillment centers in the world, like those operated by e-commerce powerhouse, Amazon, have been investing in and using cutting-edge picking automation for years now.

That said, where the strategic element comes into play here is the selection process. Picking automation comes in a variety of forms, from AS/RS, to collaborative picking carts, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), all the way to fully-autonomous picking robots. Ostensibly, these solutions vary greatly in both investment and implementation, but it’s key that you select an automated solution that is flexible enough to scale with your warehouse operation’s needs without the need for massive software or programming overhauls. This way, you have automated support that will see you through all peaks and long-term growth.

Incorporate an “Order-completion Zone” into Your Warehouse’s Floor Plan

Depending upon the comings and goings of your warehouse, it’s safe to guess that some items move much more quickly than others. This, of course, is not a unique phenomenon. In fact, when MultiChannel Merchant, interviewed Bob Smart, the director of distribution with Acme Catalog Co., he zeroed in on this issue – and even came up with a fitting solution.

According to Smart, he was inspired to implement an “order-completion zone” after happening upon one at a competitor’s warehouse. An order-completion zone is an area just adjacent to a hot zone, where the fastest-moving items are taken and the orders are completed. This creates a “warehouse within a warehouse effect” that, based on the data, reduces order picker walking and increases efficiency by a whopping 12%. It may require some initial reorganization, but adding an order-completion zone could be one of the most cost-effective ways to streamline picking processes.

Be Smart about Your SKU Placement

Another low-cost, but very effective way you can streamline your picking processes is to organize your differing SKUs in as a strategic a manner as possible. This means assigning a discrete pick location for every single SKU, with the fastest-moving organized on the lower shelves of the racking units, or in the areas closest to your order-completion zone.

If you do not do this, and instead organize your bins with 5-10 pick-facing SKUs per shelf level, according to Marc Wulfraat, President of MWPVL, you could be slowing your pickers down by 15+ seconds per pick transaction. By making these organizational, location-based changes, you could solve common picking-related issues, such as route congestion, traveling, common safety concerns (less of a need for accessing high shelves), and more.

As you can see, strategized warehouse order picking goes far beyond simply investing in the hottest and newest automation and hoping for the best – it involves a blend of software implementation and common sense infrastructural changes that support a more streamlined environment. In order to slash your own order picking times, be sure to select a series of systems and processes that are flexible enough to support your growing operation well into the future.