Unfortunately, the items our customers order can’t put themselves in a box and ship themselves (not yet, anyway). Due to this, we instead have to put together customer orders ourselves. But let’s be real for a second: we’re in the 21st century, which means that there’s got to be some way to integrate and automate this process, right? Of course there is. Integrating order picking systems alongside inventory management software or an warehouse management system is the answer you seek!
What Is Order Picking?
First off, what is order picking? Luckily, it’s fairly self-explanatory. Order picking is a part of the order fulfillment process where the individual items of a shipment are collected so they can be packed and shipped to their destination. As one of the many components of warehousing, order picking is essential to the speed, efficiency and accuracy of your shipments.
As today’s businesses look to improve their warehousing operations, order picking has been identified as one of the areas where improvement is needed the most. This is due in large part to the general inefficiency of the process. Up to 70% of the picking process is spent walking, compared to only 30% of the time actually picking items. That’s a lot of time spent without much positive contribution.
That said, that’s part of the reality of distribution centers and warehouses: they’re large spaces where the items you need probably aren’t going to be right next to each other. In order to reduce this issue and improve the productivity of order picking, the process is being integrated with and automated by warehouse management systems (WMS). If you’re wondering how you might be able to take advantage of this integration, you’re in luck. After we cover some of the variant types of order picking, we will discuss how to integrate order picking systems with a WMS. It is also good to note that many businesses combine one or more of these strategies, along with an order picking solution, to cultivate the system that best suit their unique requirements.
Types of Order Picking
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that there is a multitude of order picking methods designed to succeed under varying conditions. While this does add complexity to the process, it’s far and away better than just tossing items into boxes as quickly as possible.
- Wave Picking: Primarily works well in warehouses that have a largely varied inventory and high fulfillment demand. “Waves” of orders can be prioritized by how important they are and when they need to be shipped out. This way, critical shipments of time-sensitive and in-demand products move out first.
- Cluster Picking: While this method requires specific technological inclusions to work, it is fantastic for increasing fulfillment efficiency. Typically, a product picker will gather multiple, or a cluster of, orders at once. If you have a speedy picker and the gear required (such as voice-activated solutions), this can be a very successful method.
- Zone Picking: This strategy involves items that contain multiple components. Specific zones are set up containing all of the necessary parts of the said product allowing pickers to grab every part without having to hunt each one down. Once a picker adds the part, the package is moved down the line until all parts are collected.
- Discrete Picking: Discrete picking minimizes touches on products by having one picker find each piece of an order one at a time. This works best in smaller warehouses without complex orders. This way, only one employee is needed to retrieve all pieces of an order, and the number of touches needed drops to one.
- Multi-Order or Batch Picking: This method complements companies that have fairly predictable orders. A manager would assess and group current orders by popularity and put them into SKU ordered batches. Pickers can then easily grab the products they need to find, as they are all grouped in easily accessible locations. We will discuss this method a bit more in the next section as well.
Now that we know some of the most popular order picking strategies, we can jump into how to integrate order picking with a WMS.
Integrating Order Picking With a WMS
One of the best strategies for streamlining order fulfillment is to optimize your warehouse’s slotting. Slotting is the process of storing your products in the most efficient manner possible in order to make picking easier and faster. This generally involves placing the most popular items closer to the packing area while leaving them spaced out enough to avoid congestion. Just as important is placing these items at a height where pickers don’t have to bend down or reach up to get to them.
Many of today’s WMSs include floor planning features that you can use to optimize slotting. By tracking how quickly your inventory flows through the warehouse, you can easily determine which items need to be placed in the most strategic (aka easiest to reach and find) areas. Once all of your items are slotted and your order pickers memorize the new floor plan, the order picking process will take less time and reduce the amount of time allocated for walking.
To further increase the effectiveness of slotting, implementing batch picking greatly improves the order picking process. Batch picking is when several customer orders “are picked at the same time to minimize repeat visits to the same product bin location,” according to Multichannel Merchant. So rather than making, for example, 20 trips per day to grab a popular item, you may only have to make three or fewer trips thanks to batch picking.
A WMS provides functionality that helps with batch picking as well. Rather than going through a manual process of deciding which orders should be picked together, a WMS can automatically group all of your orders in the most efficient manner. As such, orders that include either the same items or items that are located next to each other are picked together, improving the productivity of your order pickers.
Yes, picking robots are really a thing, and they’re eliminating the need for manual order picking. As we discussed earlier, one of the biggest problems with today’s order picking methods is the time wasted by walking. This isn’t your order pickers’ fault — it’s just the reality of a warehouse.
This is why automated order picking systems are the way of the future. Robots can speed up the picking time for a sales order by calculating the optimal route in an instant. They can then do the actual picking by collecting items and delivering them to the packing area.
Thanks to the internet of things (IoT), these robots can be managed and controlled by your warehouse management system. With this feature, you can collect and analyze data about how efficient your robotic order pickers are. In addition, you can set various priorities and conditions if you need to, such as requiring that certain items of customer orders are picked first.
4 Order Picking Best Practices
It’s all well and good to have an order picking strategy in mind, but without a backbone of practices meant to support these strategies, you won’t make much progress. Strengthening your order picking process from the ground up can be tricky without an idea of what to do. Luckily, we have some ideas that can help get you off the ground.
- Optimize Picking Routes: Re-evaluating and updating picking routes is a great way to eliminate wasted time. These paths need constant updating to ensure there is minimal backtracking going on. Check-in with your pickers to get their opinions on what is causing them to have to slow down.
- Adopt Automation: Automation is growing in popularity, and for good reason. Adopting robotic additions comes with a hefty price tag, but smart automation can drastically boost efficiency and accuracy in your order picking processes.
- Identify Prime Slots: Much like optimizing your picking routes, your product storage locations should undergo review quite often. You may have a product sitting in a prime slot that is expected to be picked often when it hasn’t been touched in days. Try to ensure that you are always maximizing product locations within the warehouse to speed up order picking.
- Don’t Ignore Your Errors: Sure, ripping up a failed document can feel nice but owning your errors has benefits as well. By compiling data on issues in timing or accuracy, you can discover the root of the problem and take action.
There is another route to explore in the quest for optimization. If you’re looking for ways to innovate and streamline with your order picking system, keep the following pieces of technology in mind.
Must-Have Order Picking Technology
It should come as no surprise that having the right technology in place makes all the difference for a streamlined order picking system. Integrating these helpful pieces of equipment into your warehouse picking systems, even though some are more expensive than others, can speed up order picking by a large margin.
- Robotics: We’ve already discussed the importance of the growing robotics industry, but it’s worth mentioning again. When combined with a warehouse picking system, these mobile robots can take over most of the picking process and free human employees up for more valuable tasks. These are especially helpful in high volume locations that require a large number of varied products and larger orders.
- Voice-Picking: A voice-picking system is wonderful for speeding up the picking process. Integrating one of these gives employees the ability to keep their hands and eyes moving as picking instructions are relayed to them via headset and microphone. This way, employees don’t have to stop and look down to double-check before they pick an item.
- Barcode Scanning Equipment: Even though this tech isn’t new to the market, they are consistently updated with cutting-edge additions to help keep them relevant. When paired with order picking systems, these scanners cut down on errors while displaying and updating critical inventory information.
- Heavy Equipment: Lightweight scanners and fancy robots are great, but you’re going to need some powerful equipment to get the heavy lifting done. If you are still chasing the automated smart warehouse goal, consider robotic forklifts to carry your larger loads. Just because you need heavy equipment does not remove you from the automation game.
Quicker Picking, On-Time Delivery and Happier Customers
The formula is pretty straightforward: faster order picking leads to more shipments arriving on time and, ultimately, happier customers. In the end, that’s what we’re all striving for, isn’t it? After integrating your order picking processes with a WMS or inventory management system, you’ll wonder how you ever did it manually.
How has integrating your order picking with a management system improved your business? Let us know how below.