How to Pick Faster in a Warehouse: 12 Pick Pack and Ship Tips
Every business seeks to be successful and grow. For your business to do this, you must either increase revenue or reduce costs (ideally both). One effective area to focus on to increase efficiency is your order picking operation. In this article, we will examine 12 picking optimization tips to decrease travel time, increase picking accuracy, and ultimately pick faster in a warehouse.
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Why is order picking speed important?
Order picking speed is important because the longer it takes to pick orders, the more it costs your business. This extra time required to complete your order fulfillment may not only cost more on the front end, but also decrease customer satisfaction. Decreased customer satisfaction happens when a ship-date is missed and products arrive late, resulting in a possible decrease in future sales.
Luckily, experienced warehouse managers have discovered some best practices for order picking and the various picking strategies. These help decrease the labor required per pick and streamline your order picking process. As an added benefit, these optimization tips tend to increase not only productivity, but also picking accuracy. So what are the ways you can optimize your warehouse order picking process?
3 Types of Order Picking Warehouse Flow
There are 3 main types of process flow to consider when implementing warehouse order picking. They are, U-shaped, I-shaped, and L-shaped. The shape of the building and operations define them, and you can remember them with the acronym “UIL”. Each has their advantages and disadvantages, so you should decide which is optimal for you based on your specific products and strategies.
- U-Shaped Order Picking Flow
The U-shaped order picking flow has inbound and outbound docks in-line with each other (either next to each other or on the same side of the warehouse). Product moves from inbound to staging, storage, packing, then outbound in a U shape. This works well for smaller warehouses.
- I-Shaped Order Picking Flow
An I-shaped order picking flow places inbound and outbound docks on opposite sides of the warehouse. In this layout, inbound materials enter one side of the warehouse for staging, then storage in the middle, and finally packaging and outbound on the other end. Because of it’s simplicity, this works great for scaled up operations.
- L-Shaped Order Picking Flow
The L-shaped order picking flow is more perpendicular than either U or I-shaped flows. This type is less common than the other two with inbound and outbound usually on a 90-degree angle from each other. Most often, this is adopted based on the existing shape of a building, but it can have advantages in reducing order picker congestion with back and forth traffic.
12 Ways to Optimize Your Order Picking Speed
The following are the 12 most helpful ways to improve the efficiency of your order picking methods. These best practices may not apply to every situation, so you will need to decide if any of the tips below are suited for your particular situation or not.
Establish a Returns Management Process
It may seem strange to start with the last step in the supply chain. However, reverse logistics (returns management) is often overlooked and can cause major bottleneck problems in a fulfillment operation.
Your warehouse manager or operations lead should think ahead and consider the way in which this process will occur. Otherwise, returned items will end up consuming large amounts of space and require more added time than necessary for your orders.
This may involve establishing a designated area and department responsible for the inspection of returned orders. Usually, a business will assign returned orders to a specific class. These classes designate certain items for re-stocking, repair, or disposal. If you do not establish a sorting method, then your return inventory will stack and you may miss the opportunity to capitalize on the value of that inventory. Worse, this requires more labor than it normally will if you don’t have a returns process in place.
Choose the Correct Picking Strategy
There are 4 main types of picking strategies used in fulfillment center warehouses. These include traditional piece picking, batch picking, zone picking, and wave picking.
Each of these picking strategies has their own advantages and disadvantages. This depends upon the type and quantity of SKUs and scale of the overall warehouse. To increase your picking efficiency, you should examine the best practices for each of these strategies and determine which is best for your particular business.
Some warehouses (including our own) utilize multiple variations and combination of each of these strategies. At AMS, we decide on our strategy discretely for each customer and even by project. Most often we implement a particular strategy based on what the fastest and most accurate process is for that particular customer.
Graduate From Piece Picking
Piece picking works great for small warehouses with a small number of total SKUs. However, as order picking demand increases either by volume or number of SKUs, the piece picking strategy quickly becomes inefficient.
Many times your customer may dictate this simply due to the need for faster order fulfillment times, driven by faster order picking methods.
Warehouse Layout - Focus on Facility Flow
The largest factor in reducing efficiency in any order picking process is the distance travelled for any given picker in the warehouse. If pickers must move a long distance in order to pick items for an order, this travel time reduces your picking speed.
Logical Flow of Your Warehouse Pickers
To optimize this, consider organizing your warehouse layout according to the natural routes your pickers are already taking. When you examine the layout, if you see any slow moving inventory locations in close proximity to the packing stations or pick list area, you have an immediate way to improve your efficiency.
Each area should logically progress to the next step in the picking process. Traffic should also flow this direction to reduce congestion for your order picking teams.
Of course you should combine this with whatever warehouse layout your building dictates. Refer to the 3 types of layouts mentioned earlier in this article.
Keep Warehouse Aisles Clear
Messy aisles with unsorted and unorganized inventory or trash can kill a speedy order picking process. This is because it not only requires more time to walk around the mess, but it also causes traffic jams due to less usable space in the aisle.
Instead of letting junk build up, implement a daily or weekly process to sort inventory or clean trash before it becomes a problem.
Leave a Staging Area In Your Warehouse
It’s tempting to utilize every single square foot of your warehouse. After all, each square foot costs you money, right? That is true, however, a warehouse with no “incidental” space may suffer from major congestion issues. This can happen when inventory needs to move, or there is a sudden increase in inbound materials.
The other problem with not having any staging area in your warehouse, is that your temptation will be to never improve your layout or inventory locations. This is because without staging room, the effort required to undergo even a small improvement in processes and order efficiency is more cumbersome than it’s worth.
Leaving a small staging area allows for the flexibility to run a more lean warehouse and order picking operation.
Picking Strategy Type for Optimal Layout Flow
One way to help with this process is to implement another type of picking strategy. For example, zone picking allows for an order picker to focus only on items in their specific location in the warehouse. This means they can pick items faster and with more accuracy than if they had to traverse the entire warehouse.
More Tips on Segmenting Popular Items
Create an A-list selection that contains frequently ordered items. Examine where they are located in the warehouse and consider closer locations to the other stages of the pick pack and ship process.
Properly Organize Inventory
Simple organization is always a way to improve the pick speed for warehouse workers. This principle is true in any area of business. Poorly organized storage, mis-marked pallet locations, and inventory haphazardly stored in random areas all add to the time required to complete orders.
Unless someone steps in to correct poorly organized inventory, your business will suffer more and more over time as the problem aggravates itself. The picking rate will decrease, and no one enjoys hunting for an item so your employee moral may suffer.
Not only that, but you may even see inventory shrinkage from items stored in incorrect areas. This is money that could be turned into sales going to waste as un-organized storage.
Introducing proper categorization, tracking, and location management into your operations plan can prevent this time and cost wasting issues from ever arising.
Use Bins and Other Containers
For smaller items, organizing items into their own type of bin can help with organization. Additionally, consider how long it takes to actually pick the item. If your picking teams must pull a pallet, and open a box to retrieve an item, moving that storage to bins when they are received can drastically reduce picking time.
You may also organize items using recyclable plastic bags and dividers. This allows you to sort and store bulk volumes containing tiny pieces—for example nail washers, O-rings, etc.—while still giving you the flexibility to store more of your stuff on the same shelf. When properly labeled, containers and partitions decrease search time during collection and help keep the contents free of dust debris.
Improve Warehouse Picking Ergonomics
Many times, warehouses make the mistake of placing items either high up on a shelf, or down low on the floor. This not only increases the time required to pick an item, but also the potential for an accident or injury.
Moving the most often picked items to a normal standing height helps reduce the potential for injury and the extra time required to climb ladders or crawl on the floor. It also increases your picking team’s job satisfaction due to less stringent labor requirements.
You can also put a stock picking machine into use in your warehouse. This will also make your picking processes more efficient and safer for your employees.
Pick and Pack in One Step
One highly effective way to improve your pick and pack speed is to combine picking and packing into the same step. Traditional pick and pack process involves the picker delivering picked items from the warehouse location to the packing station.
Instead of doing this in two steps, consider packing items into their shipping boxes when you pick them from your storage bins or shelves. Of course, this is not possible for all types of picking strategies and businesses. However, if it is possible in your fulfillment picking strategy, it can save a lot of wasted time and increase picking efficiency.
Establish Good Stock Management Policies
Running out of inventory is not just a problem for the sales and purchasing teams. This also affects the efficiency of order picking operations. One reason for this is because the space devoted to this inventory is empty and could be used for another product.
If this product is one of your higher running SKUs, then the stock location is that much more valuable in terms of your picking efficiency. While it is out of stock, pickers must go past the open slot to get to other items in the order. Whereas, if it did not exist in the inventory, other products could fill the designated spot for that item and make the order picking more efficient.
Good inventory management practices include creating a replenishment process for all stock. There are two strategies for this, cycle stock, and cushion (or safety) stock. Implementing a good warehouse management system also helps prevent stock outs.
Establish a Receiving Process
Similar to making sure your reverse logistics plan is in place, the same is true for receiving. This is often overlooked in warehouses with managers thinking that perhaps it can wait until the warehouse starts actually receiving inventory.
Ignoring this process can cause catastrophic issues and very long lead times for inbound material. Not only long lead times, but the potential for inventory shrinkage and loss is a distinct possibility when no receiving process is in place.
A good receiving process should include a basic staging area and a process for categorizing and inputting inbound materials into the warehouse management software. Certain warehouse employees should be dedicated to this process without distraction from other tasks.
Use Proper Warehouse Equipment
You can implement all the best practices and strategies for your fulfillment process, but without the correct equipment, it may not be effective.
For example, mobile picking technologies such as RF scanners are nice, but cannot help a disorganized warehouse. However, when the basic elements are in place, the right equipment can increase efficiency by leaps and bounds.
Some picking process warehouse equipment improvements may include the following:
- RF Inventory Scanners
- Conveyer Systems
- Sorting Systems
- Pick to Light Systems
- Automated Storage Retrieval Systems
- Step Ladders
- High-density Racking
The main driver of investment into new equipment should be two factors: time and safety. Sometimes, equipment may not make the picking process more efficient, but only safer. This investment should weigh equally with cost reducers and time saving options.
Discontinue Paper Based Picking - Implement a Warehouse Management System (WMS)
Implementing a warehouse management system will enhance both productivity and order accuracy. Not only that, but a WMS technology opens up possibilities for more complex fulfillment strategies such as wave picking and combinations of other types of picking.
Furthermore, a WMS enables managers to have a constantly updated and real-time overview of inventory and current line status. This is invaluable for improvements in productivity. Not only will a WMS help organize current picking strategies, but it will illustrate other areas for improvement and efficiency.
Finally, a WMS also opens up quite a bit of automation itself by performing tasks such as creating pick lists, processing orders, managing shipping, and creating a batch of picks for warehouse workers. This in and of itself makes fulfillment much faster because a person no longer is required to perform this step.
Implement Kitting and Bundling
Often customers order certain products together with greater frequency. Your warehouse team can implement an assembly process to pre-bundle these items together before they are stocked in inventory. This process is called “kitting“. This means that your order picking team will not have to perform the picking and assembly of the various items at the time of the order. This saves time and increases accuracy for each order.
However, the downside is that you must have enough confidence that your customers will continue ordering in this fashion into the future. Otherwise, your kitted SKUs will consume valuable storage space in your inventory. Order picking will actually take longer and you may have to un-kit the orders in the future.
Consider Seasonality Before It's Too Late
Don’t wait too late to plan for seasonality of order volume. If your customers typically order more during Christmas time or other seasons, your sales and marketing team should be aware of that.
Then, it’s only a matter of connecting your sales and marketing teams with your warehouse management and operations managers. Together they can put together a labor, layout, and process plan to effectively handle the seasonal shift in order fulfillment.
Picking Best Practices Conclusion
Hopefully these optimization tips have helped you understand how to pick faster in a warehouse. Your warehouse order fulfillment processes can either make or break your business. Remember, the way to grow your business isn’t always to increase sales. Reducing cost is also an important aspect. Your picking strategies and warehouse order productivity can do just that.