For large ecommerce companies and marketplaces, warehouses are gigantic structures. To grasp how big they are, Amazon warehouses average 800,000 sq ft of space, which is only 30 sq ft less than the size of Buckingham Palace. These massive facilities are filled to the brim with inventory, stacks and stacks of items for sale in every shape and size and covering every category.
With that picture in mind, it’s easy to understand how important it is to have order in these facilities, to have systems in place that (a) organize the inventory in such a way that each item can easily be found, and (b) lay out clear plans to move these items from one area to another – which, basically, is the function of the warehouse. Maintaining order is the goal of warehouse management.
We’re going to drill down on one aspect of warehouse management in this blog: gathering items from their storage locations to fill orders, or picking. Picking is the most labor intensive, time consuming, and expensive activity that takes place in the warehouse, so it’s important for management to make it as quick and efficient as possible. Here are some suggestions for optimal picking.
5 ways to improve the picking process
1. Get your warehouse slotting right.
It all begins with organization in the warehouse. Even though these spaces are enormous, every square foot costs money and has to be utilized. More than that, it has to be utilized to its best advantage. This is known as warehouse slotting. The point of warehouse slotting is to have inventory stored in such a way that it can be located and picked quickly and easily. In other words, it’s strategic, not random.
Management can organize slotting in whatever way best suits their company and inventory, but it’s common to arrange everything according to criteria like:
- Purchase orders,
- Product type,
- Stock keeping units (SKU), and
- Sales movements.
2. Have data on your inventory at your fingertips.
Since the core function of a warehouse is to store items until they’re needed and pick them when that time comes, it stands to reason that information about those items has to be thorough, accurate, and centralized. That’s where inventory management systems come into play. These systems are a warehouse manager’s best friend from the minute stock enters their facility until the moment it’s shipped out.
When it comes to the slotting described above, the software will quickly identify where each new item that comes into the warehouse should be placed, down to the correct bin, getting the information it needs for this by scanning the items’ barcodes. The barcode tells the software everything it needs to know about an item. Picking uses a similar formula. Working from what’s called a picklist – which is a list of the items that have to be pulled for orders, a list also produced by the software – a barcode against each item on the list is scanned to find its location. That’s how the picker knows where to go. Automating like this speeds up the picking process and practically eliminates errors.
A system like Cin7 Core can do all this and more. It scans wirelessly, making the job ten times easier for a worker; it will match each item to its PO, identifying any discrepancies when they’re logged into the warehouse; and it will take care of the all-important job of tracking all the inventory, giving a clear window into stock levels at all times.
3. Sort out the best pick paths for your pickers
Items on the picklists have a sequence that will take the picker along the most efficient path. In other words, items follow each other on the picklist because they’re located nearest to each other. This picking route round the facility is the pick path.
While pick paths can be sorted out by warehouse management systems (WMS), other activities that take place in the facility have to be taken into account when issuing them. We’re referring to new items having to be stored, and large pallets being moved from one area to another. Large machines like forklifts and pallet jacks are used to move goods around like this, and, for safety’s sake, it’s a good idea to keep them out of the pickers’ way.
Another good idea when thinking about pick paths is to make sure that you have a dedicated area for inventory. Receiving, packing, and shipping should have their own dedicated zones, away from the storage part.
Bottom line is that the better the pick path, the quicker the pickers do their job, and the quicker orders can be fulfilled
4. Take advantage of technology
Technological advances have already brought us to a new era in picking. Here are some examples of automated picking systems you can take advantage of:
Pick to light
Similar to the system used in parking structures where LED lights above each space can change color when a car pulls into one, making it clear which spots are empty at a glance, pick to light systems in warehouses have LED lights along each part of the storage area. These lights are used to guide the picker through their pick path, lighting up to show the picker which item they need to pick.
There are no physical picklists with this system. The picker sets everything in motion by scanning the barcode on any carton or item container, and the lights on those inventory storage areas they have to pick things from come on, telling them exactly where to go. An LED screen at each storage area will let the picker know the number of items they have to pull. When they’ve done this, the picker presses a button on the readout as acknowledgement, and the light goes out.
In addition to speeding the process up and making it more accurate, pick to light means that individual pickers can be assigned their own sections of the warehouse, cutting down drastically on the distance they have to walk each day.
Here vocal instructions take the place of lights, and pickers get them in real time through headsets they wear. Again, there are no physical picklists, and information about what to pick, where the items are located, and the quantity needed comes directly from the automated warehouse management system (WMS). All the interactions between the picker and voice picking system are recorded for future reference and tracking.
The RF in RFID stands for radio frequency. It’s a form of barcode placed on each item that not only identifies the item, but can store and transmit everything about it. These tags are also a great way to streamline the picking process. Like pick to light and voice picking, the picklists are relayed directly to the picker from the WMS, but, unlike the previous two, the items they’re to pick, their locations, and quantities required, show up on an RF scanner. Advanced models of these scanners, which can be handheld or wearable, have readouts in addition to their scanning capability that makes this form of picklist possible.
After following their picking instructions from their RF scanners, pickers use the same device to scan the RFID tag on the items they’ve picked, registering the fact that they’ve completed the task. If the picker makes a mistake, the scanner will let them know.
Again, it’s a great way to speed up the picking process and make it more accurate.
5. Use robots
When robots are part of the picking process, they take care of a lot of the physical work, easing the load for floor staff and cutting down on their injuries. They’re called “pick and place” robots, and here are some examples:
Short for collaborative robots, these bots assist the picker. Able to move up and down the aisles on their own and navigate around obstacles, they can pick items from storage and place them in the picking cart, or just move the picking cart, saving the picker from having to do that.
Otherwise known as articulated arms or robotic arms, these robots resemble the human joint and can bend in the same way. These bots are good for sorting items into individual orders and are equipped with vision to help them in this.
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs)
These autonomous mobile robots are widely used in warehouses for pick-and-place purposes. AMRs are equipped with sensors and Artificial Intelligence (AI) that are programmed to interpret the surroundings and move around the warehouse safely without human intervention.
Picking can be a daunting process to organize and get right, but it can be made to run smoothly and efficiently when the right systems and technology are in place.
Cin7 Core’s warehouse management system can help you get to this point. A great asset, it integrates seamlessly with all your sales channels, and when customers place their orders it will issue detailed picking lists for your pickers. It can also print shipping labels.
To find out how Cin7 Core can improve picking in your facility, click here to schedule time with one of our experts today.