Warehouse Packing: Automation and Algorithms for an Optimized Packing Process

Easy guide to automate your packing process and fulfill orders quickly and accurately

What is Warehouse Packing?

In the warehouse process checklist, packing comes right after the picking process. From an order fulfillment perspective, packing is an important step as it makes the order ready to be shipped to the customer. After every item present in the order list is picked, it is sent to the packing station. Here, a worker chooses a suitable packaging material depending on the product's size, shape, and fragility. Once the whole order is packed, it is wrapped, sealed, measured, and weighed. An appropriate packing slip is generated which contains the shipping label and order invoice. This packing slip is attached to the package, which is then sent to the respective courier service to be shipped to the customer’s desired destination.

What makes warehouse packing important?

Packing is the last step in the order completion process. Any mistake during the picking process needs to be recognized and rectified at this step or else a wrong order will be dispatched to the customer. Incorrect orders can not only pose a lot of challenges in terms of returns and customer service, but also cost the warehouse a lot of time and money. Not to mention the damage it does to your brand’s image. This makes warehouse packing a vital aspect of the order fulfillment journey.

Another aspect of warehouse packing is damage protection. Orders that are fragile need to be packed efficiently with enough safety materials like air cushions, bubble wrap, foam peanuts, and more, to ensure they don’t break in transit. Receiving broken or damaged products is worse than receiving wrong products as the company now needs to pay for re-picking as well as a replacement for the damaged good. Sometimes, even a refund might have to be initiated.

While most customers are concerned about the product inside the box, customizing the box to give it a unique brand identity also resonates with a lot of them. In today’s age of frenzied competition and countless alternatives, providing a memorable experience to the customer goes a long way in building a long-lasting relationship.

What are some of the problems faced during warehouse packing?

The Knapsack Problem

This is a major challenge that affects every warehouse. This is an optimization problem in which multiple items - each having its own dollar value and weight - have to be packed inside a container in such a way that it holds the most value but the weight is less than the weight limit for the container.

The Knapsack problem is an NP-Complete problem, which means that mathematicians are yet to find an efficient algorithmic solution for it. Poor judgment regarding which items should be packed together can lead to the usage of excess packing material and greater number of boxes. This increases the shipping cost for the warehouse and can prove costly as fragile products might be packed with less packaging material and can break during shipping.

Bin Packing Problem

The bin packing problem is also an optimization problem in which the goal is to pack multiple items in as few containers as possible. It could also be done by packing everything densely in just one container and using the least amount of packaging material possible. While the packaging material protects the items kept inside a container, it also makes the container slightly heavy.

For shipping companies that use weight or dimensional weight pricing, it becomes essential for warehouses to keep their packages as light and as few as possible. Shipping costs are a significant aspect of warehouse expenses. Inefficient packing methods and usage of excess packaging material can not only drive up the cost, but also limit the shipping capacity for a warehouse, leading to a delay in order delivery.

Labeling

While attaching the product details and order invoice along with the shipping label is necessary for any package, additional labeling directing how to handle the package should also be done. A single package can go through multiple channels and transfers before reaching the customer. Hence, even if the item inside is packed properly, how the whole package is handled determines whether the product is likely to break or not.

For instance, a ‘fragile’ instruction can be printed on the box containing fragile content so that handlers move the package with care. Similar instructions can be written for products that are best suited for mechanical handling via forklifts and shouldn’t be carried manually like big-screen TVs or glass paintings.

Insufficient Details

Product details like weight and fragility are important for a packer to know as it determines which kind of packaging material should be used to prevent the item from breaking. When these details are not passed on efficiently from the picking stage or the product itself doesn’t have any directions specifying how to pack it, the final product might turn out to be unsecured and susceptible to breakage while shipping. Warehouses end up incurring reverse logistics cost for such packages.

Different types of Warehouse Automation

Warehouses across the world are incorporating automation systems in their operations to not only improve efficiency, but also be more productive. Packaging automation is one area where solutions like warehouse robots, conveyor automation systems and other systems can have a positive effect in closing customer orders quickly and correctly.

Robotic Packing

Robotic case packers can replace humans and less reliable mechanical case packers to efficiently pack cases. Tools like a custom End of Arm Tool can pick single or multiple items at once and pack them into single or multiple cases as per requirement. The flexibility of the End of Arm Tool allows the robot to pick items of various shapes and sizes easily.

These robots reduce labor costs, maintenance costs, increase packing efficiency, improve safety, and their minimal footprint optimizes floor space as well. Robotic packing solutions tend to be more reliable than manual counterparts and can speed up the packing process instantly while maintaining efficiency.

Automated Document Insertion

Creating invoices, shipping labels and other documents for a package can take a lot of time if done manually for every package. An automated warehouse uses document insertion systems to scan the products that go on the belt and generate all the required paperwork instantly. Details of a product, its dimensions, weight, handling procedures, bill of lading, and more are accurately captured in the labels. It also places the required documents like warranty certificates, how-to manuals, etc. inside the package before wrapping it completely.

E-commerce Automated Packing

Owing to the emergence of various e-commerce platforms and same-day delivery services, the need for speeding up the packaging process has increased for e-commerce companies. Online retailers like Amazon are using semi-automated and fully automated systems to pack boxes 4-5 times faster than manual packaging and keeping costs low as well.

These automated packing systems are capable of measuring, weighing, labeling, and taping each parcel from start to finish without human intervention. They can pack multiple boxes in a minute and are capable of packing different-sized boxes in a seamless manner. Some solutions can even create unique packaging boxes as per the dimensions of the product. This not only eliminates the need of having boxes of different sizes, but also cuts down on packaging materials.

Packing Algorithms for optimal packing

First Fit

In the First Fit algorithm, all the boxes are kept open in the order they were opened. The item to be packed is moved along the boxes until the first box capable of fitting the item is found. That box is then packed and sent for shipping.

Next Fit

Next Fit is suitable for warehouses that don’t have a lot of real estate to keep multiple boxes open in a single place. The packer opens a box, tries to fit the item inside it, and if successful, sends it for further processing. If the item doesn’t fit, the packer closes that box and opens a new one to try the fitting again. This process keeps on repeating until a suitable box is found and then the item is packed and sent for shipping. Once a box is closed, the packer doesn’t return to it for the same item, and hence, requires comparatively less space.

Best Fit

Slightly similar to the first-fit algorithm, Best Fit also requires all the boxes to be kept open. The item is then passed around every box to determine which has the best fit for the item and doesn’t leave too much empty space. It is suitable for saving on packaging material costs and dimensional weight pricing.

Worst Fit

Worst Fit comes into play when an item needs to be packed in one of the partially filled boxes. The packer determines which box has the least number of items and places the product in that box. This way, the load of the box doesn’t change drastically, and it doesn’t get damaged.

3D Bin Packing

3D Bin Packing uses Artificial Intelligence to analyze the volumetric information of the product to be packed and then recommends the most appropriate box size. It uses repeated heuristic search to improve packing efficiency and reduce the number of packaging materials used.

How a WMS helps improve packing efficiency?

Sorting

A single warehouse can have multiple packing stations spread across the floor and on different levels as well. These stations pack boxes of various sizes that are bound to go to different locations, and hence, need to be sorted as per their shipping channels. Sorting these boxes manually can take up a lot of time and is prone to errors as well.

Intelligent warehouse management systems integrate with the packing process and can easily sort the boxes based on their size, weight, destination, shipping modules, and other parameters. This makes it easier for packers to send the completed order to their respective loading areas and optimize the whole outbound process. Manual errors are eliminated, the efficiency of the packing station is improved, and overall warehouse costs are reduced.

Shipping

As the last step of the order fulfillment process, efficient shipping can have a huge impact on warehouse operations. Integrating a warehouse management system with an inline scale and dimension solution accurately helps capture the weight and dimensions of the package without having to stop the conveyor flow.

A completed order also needs to have certain paperwork attached to it, especially if the order is to be sent across countries and distant locations. A WMS software can produce documents such as the order invoice, certificate of origin, shipment labels, advanced shipping notice, bill of lading, and more, to ensure smooth shipment. Another feature of WMS software is that it can create an optimized loading guide for trucks to make the best use of space based on the product's weight, fragility, dimensions, etc.

Fulfillment Orchestration

Managing resources, whether they are human employees or robots, can be a tough task for any warehouse manager, especially in a large, fast-moving warehouse. Managers don’t have complete visibility of what action a certain resource is handling and what is the outcome of that. By incorporating a WMS software, managers can improve the visibility of their resources and get updated in real-time about the tasks that are completed, ongoing, or yet to start. Dynamic task allocation makes sure no resource is sitting idle and overall warehouse productivity is increased.

It is also essential for aligning picking, packing, sorting, and shipping activities, to make sure everything runs smoothly and without delay. Orders that are picked are immediately sent to the packing station and don’t spend a lot of time sitting in transit or in-between processes. This helps speed up the order fulfillment process as every process keeps on running continuously.

Hardware Integration

While the trend of incorporating robots inside a warehouse is increasingly becoming popular, a lot of warehouses still find it difficult to gather useful data from these machines. They are stuck utilizing the bare minimum functionalities of these intelligent machines. A robust WMS software can easily integrate with any robotic systems installed in the warehouse without the need of developing high-level programming.

These WMS software solutions provide insight into every task your robotic packer, labeler, or weighing scale is performing and sends it to a central database for record-keeping. This data is a treasure trove of information that can be analyzed to find out which machines are working efficiently, how much profit or loss the warehouse is experiencing, which machines are performing below their capacity, and a lot more.

Warehouse managers can utilize this information to improve the efficiency of different operations, cut down on costs, replace any faulty equipment, and improve the safety of their employees by removing at-risk machinery promptly. 

Actionable Intelligence

Receiving and storage are important aspects of a warehouse, but most of its duties involve picking, packing, and shipping of correct orders to respective customers. Any delay or mistake in these processes can hamper the warehouse’s image of doing business efficiently and can prove to be costly as well.

A WMS software comes in handy during such times as it can automate manual tasks involved in different processes and complete them with greater efficiency and accuracy. It uses advanced machine learning algorithms to find the most optimized way to complete a process. Reducing costs related to labor, equipment, and packaging materials is of paramount importance to a warehouse, and integration with suitable WMS solutions can help them achieve that goal.

Warehouse Control Tower

Picking, packing, and shipping make up the complete order fulfillment process. While they contribute to a singular outcome, each process is handled separately by different employees and intelligent machines. For efficient warehouse operations and for ensuring that the correct order is dispatched to the correct address, synchronization among these processes is vital. A WMS software has complete visibility of all operations in the warehouse and is best suited for keeping tabs on where a specific order is in the order fulfillment chain.

Warehouse managers need to deal with a host of processes and employees at the same time. With manual record-keeping and process updates, it becomes a cumbersome task for managers to accurately track the order status, efficiency of different processes, and costs incurred at different stages. It also becomes hard for them to identify which orders are sent for shipping, which orders are still on the conveyor belt, and which orders are already dispatched by going through bundles of order invoices and shipping labels.

Why Hopstack could be the best Packing Solution for your warehouse?

With its cloud-based digital warehouse software, Hopstack provides the best packing solutions to not only improve your packing efficiency, but also ensure correct and undamaged order delivery every time.

Hopstack’s solution can easily integrate with your existing ERP and warehouse robotic systems to provide great control and insight into every packing process. It reduces software deployment time, improves efficiency of existing resources, and provides 360-degree visibility of warehouse operations.

When it comes to warehousing, everything depends on the efficiency of order delivery. Enhance your customer experience by delivering the right products, intact and on-time, every time.

Start your 14-day free trial of Hopstack now and say hello to a world of zero delivery errors.

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