Warehouse picking refers to the process where individual items are picked from a fulfillment facility to satisfy customers’ orders. It’s an essential aspect of order fulfillment and is considered one of the most expensive and labor-intensive activities for warehouses.
Industry reports estimate that warehouse picking constitutes up to 55% of a distribution center’s operating costs. Since warehouse picking directly impacts customer satisfaction, business reputation and profitability, improving this activity is a top priority for companies worldwide.
Warehouse picking strategies
Facility managers and business owners must be careful when choosing a picking strategy since this can make or break efficiency in a warehouse operation. Facility size, availability of financial and human resources, the number of SKUs in stock and quantity/frequency of customers’ orders received are some of the factors that influence the choice of a warehouse’s picking strategy. Some of the more popular warehouse picking strategies include:
Also referred to as the “pick and pass” methodology, this picking strategy is often used for complex or multi-item orders to improve efficiency. Similar SKUs are organized into specific and physically defined groups called “zones” and pickers are assigned to individual zones. To fulfill customers’ orders, the picker(s) assigned to a zone are responsible for picking all the SKUs from that zone.
Due to its simplicity and ease of implementation, discrete picking order is a popular warehousing picking strategy. Pickers simply pick items one at a time until the order is complete. This strategy is ideal for smaller warehouses with smaller orders and a limited range of SKUs. This strategy makes it easy to track order picker accuracy and enables rapid response time for order fulfillment. However, discrete picking involves significant travel time, making it labor-intensive and an inefficient picking strategy for warehouses that deal with higher-volume or more complex orders.
This strategy is best employed where pickers need to travel long distances through the warehouse to fulfill multiple orders with the same SKU. Warehouses that employ this picking strategy have their pickers pick a group of orders at the same time, one product at a time. This eliminates the need to make multiple trips through the warehouse by simultaneously picking items for several orders at each location. Pickers only have to travel once to a location for a SKU to fulfill multiple customer orders.
This strategy is similar to discrete picking where pickers fulfill orders by picking one SKU at a time. However, wave picking leverages scheduling windows while discrete picking does not. To optimize and maximize picking and shipping operations, order picking is scheduled at specific times of the day.
Combined warehouse picking strategies
To streamline order picking and improve the efficiency of order fulfillment activities, facilities may choose to combine two or more of the strategies outlined above. Such integrated strategies include:
Combining batch and zone picking strategies creates a hybrid strategy where pickers are not only assigned to a specified zone but are also required to execute batch picking to fill orders sent to the zone. This hybrid strategy also has a scheduling window.
Just like zone-batch picking, pickers are assigned to zones within the warehouse. However, they make use of wave picking rather than batch picking to fulfill orders within their zones. Pickers handle the picking of SKUs stocked in their zone, one order at a time.
This strategy is a complex combination of zone-wave picking and zone-batch picking. Facilities that use this strategy require pickers assigned to a zone to pick all SKUs for order items in their zone. In addition, there are multiple scheduling windows per shift, and pickers pick two or more orders at a time.
Warehouse picking equipment
Although picking activities can be done manually, it is labor-intensive, increases the cost of operation and introduces inefficiencies. To streamline and support the warehouse picking process, facilities need to identify and leverage the right automation tools and equipment. Such tools include:
Collaborative mobile robots
Collaborative mobile robots work alongside human workers and guide associates through tasks.
Forklifts, pallet jacks and other heavy-duty equipment are used for handling large load capacities.
Voice-picking equipment, such as headset & hands-free system, provides instruction on the next task to pickers in real-time.
Smart weight scales
Smart weight scales help to reduce errors and predict changes in shipping costs. They also prevent over- and under-packaging.
Warehouse picking best practices
Let’s review some general tips and best practices for improving warehouse picking activities.
Set productivity goals
A top priority for warehouse managers should be creating goals where pickers are encouraged to pick the most orders in the shortest possible time without sacrificing accuracy or safety. This can be achieved by designing the warehouse in a way that facilitates a higher pick density — and a great way to do this is by organizing frequently ordered SKUs into zones. This speeds up picking activities, reduces travel time and improves warehouse productivity.
Minimize walking time by optimizing warehouse layout
Facility managers should review inventory and layout regularly to ensure that SKUs are optimally positioned to minimize walking time. Pickers typically spend a lot of “dead time” (approximately 60% of productive hours) walking around the warehouse in between picks. Also, pick lists should be organized in a way that minimizes backtracking and allows pickers to systematically and efficiently complete picks in the shortest time possible.
Use the right tools
Minimizing the number of hands that SKUs pass through before they are shipped is a great way to boost productivity and efficiency. Companies should invest in hands-free equipment and technologies that promote warehouse automation. Although this comes with some up-front costs, the ROI is worth the initial investment.
Strategically place frequently picked SKUs
Since companies usually generate 80% of sales from 20% of their catalog, it’s a great idea to place such frequently ordered SKUs close to pickers’ workstations. Placing frequently picked items close to packaging and shipping areas reduces travel time and increases pickers’ productivity. High-velocity SKUs can be placed at floor level in bins closest to pickers while slow velocity items can be vertically situated.
In the face of stiff competition and constantly changing consumer demand, supply chain executives must improve customer satisfaction while reducing operating expenses to protect their company’s bottom line. The key to achieving this lies in proactively optimizing fulfillment operations, especially warehouse picking activities. As such, facility managers must choose the right picking strategy for their facility, implement picking best practices and leverage the right automation tools and equipment.
Read our case study to learn how one top-ten 3PL doubled pick rates and improved order accuracy to 99.9% by leveraging 6 River Systems’ collaborative mobile robots.