How to improve warehouse productivity

6 ways to improve warehouse productivity

John Gomez Last Updated: July 2nd, 2019

Keeping your warehouse running at optimized productivity levels is no easy feat. Supply chain delays, worker injuries, staff shortages and other factors threaten your productivity, and these and other challenges can arise without warning. Fortunately, there are several ways to improve warehouse productivity and keep your workflows running smoothly. Here’s a look at six proven ways to boost your warehouse’s productivity.

Choose the right picking methodology

How to improve warehouse productivity

There’s no single best picking methodology that works for every warehouse. The right picking methodology for your operation depends on your warehouse layout, the types of inventory you manage (large pallets, small and lightweight items, etc.), your warehouse infrastructure and other factors. For example, if you have large warehouse conveyor systems that take up a substantial amount of warehouse floor space, any picking methodology you choose must function around those existing structures (unless you invest in a major infrastructure overhaul).

The right picking methodology can speed up fulfillment times, reducing unnecessary walking and enabling your warehouse associates to get more done in less time. The right technology investments can reduce unnecessary walking, too. 6 River Systems’ Chuck, for instance, reduced associates’ walking from 12 miles per day to just 3 miles per day for Healing Hands Scrubs. By autonomously driving to and from active picking, induct and takeoff areas, and by supporting batch, discrete, zone, and cluster picking — simultaneously, Chuck frees your associates up to focus exclusively on picking.

Implement the right software

Software is the backbone of many companies today, automating manual processes and analyzing data better and faster than humans can. In the warehouse setting, data is crucial for measuring performance, identifying bottlenecks and workflow issues and forecasting demand to optimize inventory.

That said, many companies have data that exists in silos, making it difficult to analyze data from multiple sources. A 2018 survey conducted by SnapLogic found that 74% of respondents reported that they have more data than ever, yet they struggle to generate meaningful insights from it. In the same survey, 90% of IT decision-makers said better data utilization was a high priority, and 86% see it as a key driver of competitive advantage. More telling, just 2% of companies surveyed said they consider themselves effective at data sharing, while the remainder still struggle with data silos.

Integrated software solutions — software solutions that share data and communicate with one another — eliminate data silos, making your data more useful (and more actionable). A warehouse management solution that integrates with your accounting software or HR software, for example, makes it easy to analyze data from both sources so you can more effectively plan staffing, forecast and budget and make smarter decisions.

Keep associates’ comfort in mind

There’s a growing field of study focused on ergonomics, and for good reason: Associates experiencing burnout or fatigue are less productive and more likely to make mistakes. The National Safety Council estimates that fatigue contributes to $130 billion per year in productivity losses related to health, and a typical company in the U.S. with 1,000 employees loses more than $1 million every year to fatigue-related productivity losses. Sleep disorders, one common contributor to fatigue affecting more than 70 million Americans, are particularly prevalent in the warehousing, manufacturing, trucking and construction fields.

Warehouse operators can combat fatigue by implementing ergonomic workstations and mandating adequate break periods for associates. Warehouse automation solutions and equipment that can handle heavy loads reduces heavy lifting, which in turn reduces the physical demands on your associates and reduces the risk of injury. A risk index published by David Lombardi, principal research scientist at the Center for Injury Epidemiology at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety in Hopkinton, MA and researcher Simon Folkard, of the Université Paris Descartes, estimates the injury risk related to work schedules. The analysis found that the type of shift, the number of consecutive shifts an employee works, hours worked per shift and the number and duration of rest breaks impact the risk of injury. Findings include:

  • Night shift workers have a 31% higher risk compared to morning shift workers.
  • Risk increases by 36% by the fourth consecutive shift compared to the first shift.
  • Risk nearly doubles by the 12th hour of work.

Notably, the risk of injury drops by almost 50% after a rest break of any length.

Air conditioning, ergonomic floor mats or other soft flooring surfaces can reduce strain and make long shifts more bearable for associates. In a 2009 CareerBuilder survey, 27% of respondents said their workplace is too hot, while 19% said it’s too cold. More importantly, 22% of respondents said it’s difficult to concentrate in a too-hot environment, while 11% said the same of too-cold environments.

Use flexible automation solutions Ways to improve warehouse productivity

Flexible automation solutions like collaborative mobile robots can be rented during peak periods to accommodate demand and returned when demand returns to normal. Collaborative mobile robots also work with  your existing infrastructure, meaning there’s no need for major investments in permanent infrastructure changes.

Collaborative mobile robots like 6 River Systems’ Chuck guide warehouse associates through tasks to increase accuracy and productivity, optimizing tasks in real-time based on the warehouse status and work priorities. After implementing 6 River Systems’ solution, Healing Hands Scrubs doubled its productivity to about 180 UPH, with bursts up to 300 UPH. As mentioned previously, Chuck reduced walking by 75%, from 12 miles per day to just 3 miles per day.

Implement preventive maintenance plans

According to Odesie, the average equipment breakdown rate in the U.S. was 20% in the 1950s, rising to 60% in the 1990s. Breakdown maintenance, or emergency maintenance, costs three to nine times more than planned maintenance due to factors such as:

  • Overtime paid for repairs
  • Rush shipping costs for replacement parts
  • Service call-outs
  • Production losses

Whether you rely on automation technologies or traditional warehouse equipment, preventive maintenance keeps your assets in optimal working order, reducing unexpected breakdowns and workflow interruptions. Plus, regular equipment maintenance extends the lifespan of your assets by minimizing the effect of wear and tear on machines (due to worn-out parts that make equipment work harder and similar factors), meaning you get more usage out of your investments before they require replacement.

Take steps to minimize errors

Picking errors, such as picking the wrong items or the wrong quantity of an item, can result in inaccurate inventory counts, leading to repeat work such as repacking an order to replace an incorrect order. Common fulfillment errors include:

  • Quantity shortages — when a supplier ships less than the product quantity requested
  • Ticket errors — when a supplier incorrectly tags an item with the wrong SKU or price
  • ASN errors — when a supplier doesn’t give an advanced electronic notice to retailers ahead of a PO’s shipment

Landmark Global reports that 35% of facilities have ongoing mispick rates of 1% or more, a seemingly small number that quickly amounts to a big problem when left unchecked.

The right technology can have a big impact on improving accuracy. According to the 2014 GS1 US Standards Usage Survey, retail inventory is accurate about 63% of the time, a figure that rises to 95% after implementing item-level tagging such as RFID. Collaborative mobile robots are another technology solution that can boost accuracy. Thanks to Chuck’s built-in scanners, Healing Hands Scrubs’ associates benefit from hands-free scanning with on-the-spot validation to ensure they picked the right item.

Few (if any) warehouses run at optimal productivity 100% of the time, but by implementing these strategies, you can keep your workflows flowing and your warehouse running smoothly. When unexpected circumstances hinder your productivity, having these systems in place help you get back on track quickly.