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Warehouse Management

7 Warehouse Picking Challenges & How To Solve Them

Discover the biggest order picking challenges threatening warehouse operations and how to overcome them with the use of the right technology.

Team Hopstack
April 18, 2024

In this blog

Successful warehouse operations require continuous collaboration between different processes in real time. The efficiency and productivity of the entire warehousing operation suffer if even one of these processes underperforms.

The warehouse picking process involves the selection of products from the storage areas required to fulfill customer orders. It’s one of the most labor-intensive and expensive processes in a warehouse and directly influences customer satisfaction and order fulfillment capabilities of your warehousing operation.

An inaccurate and/or inefficient order picking process can be a symptom of larger problems within your warehouse, be it inefficient space utilization, ineffective labor usage, or wasteful picking practices in general. Your ability to address these picking challenges will be the competitive differentiator when it comes to consolidating your position within the industry.

Top Order Picking Challenges in the Warehouse

Warehouses have to contend with different order picking challenges based on industry verticals and the nature of their products. We have prepared a list of the top challenges in the warehouse picking process that impact business outcomes.

Inaccurate Inventory Information

Inaccurate inventory information creates a ripple effect that negatively impacts the entire picking process and brings down the overall productivity of warehouse operations. Granular details about the location, type, and quantity of products form the basis of an efficient warehouse picking process and reduced order cycle times.

  • Pickers rely on accurate inventory information to pick the right items for fulfillment. According to Honeywell, errors in the order picking process can cost a business anywhere from $10 to $250 each, depending on the value of the products.
  • Accurate inventory data also informs inventorying and demand forecasting decisions. A lack of inventory visibility can lead to overstocking, stockouts, or backorders.
  • Inaccurate inventory information often results in large amounts of obsolete stock. If not addressed in time, it can eat into your operating expenses and warehouse space.

A warehouse management system (WMS) can automatically update inventory records based on warehouse picking activities. It integrates with RFID readers and barcode scanners to quickly identify and capture inventory information. Reconciliation of physical inventory counts and system records ensures there are no discrepancies in your inventory information. This helps pickers avoid picking the wrong product and identify the optimal path across the warehouse.

Poor Picking Paths

Path optimization can be a major picking challenge for warehouse operations looking to balance labor costs with utilization. Inefficient picker routes increase travel time and reduce picker productivity. 

Poor picker routes mean your floor workers are prone to fatigue or burnout due to the long travel times. Tired workers are more susceptible to errors, leading to order returns, cancellations, and lost sales. Inefficient picker routes and poorly planned inventory placement make the warehouse picking process more complicated for the pickers.

A smart WMS can analyze order processing information, warehouse layout, and inventory location to optimize order picking routes for floor workers. Dynamic warehouse picking methods, like zone picking, wave picking, batch picking, and interweaving between pick and putaway tasks can further reduce travel times and maximize pick rates. Optimized picker routes and holistic order picking strategies will lead to fewer customer order returns for your warehouse operations.

Human Errors in Warehouse Picking

Human errors will always be a possibility for warehouse operations, especially in the order picking process which requires a significant amount of human output. Despite your best efforts, your pickers can pick the wrong product, pick an incorrect quantity or use an improper picking method.

Introducing the right technology can dramatically reduce human errors in the warehouse picking process. Order picking errors can reduce order fulfillment rate and overall customer satisfaction while increasing operating expenses and return rates if allowed to go unchecked. According to a survey by Robotics 24/7, 63% of respondents are looking to improve the order picking process by introducing robotics and automation.

Replacing manual, paper-based processes with a warehouse management system (WMS) will allow you to reduce the possibility of human errors in the warehouse. 

  • Introduce digital picking lists and electronic order data essential to providing real-time guidance to your pickers on the floor.
  • Personal digital assistants (PDAs) and barcode scanners allow the pickers to access and verify order information for the picked items.
  • A multi-layer system of checks and balances can provide workers with a standardized checklist to overcome order picking challenges.

Lack of Picking Visibility

An overreliance on paper-based methods can be a major picking challenge in itself. It leads to information silos and a lack of visibility in the warehouse picking process. 

  • A mistake can occur at any stage of the order fulfillment pipeline. Paper-based systems usually have no way to track these errors till it's too late.
  • Traditional systems have no way to track key warehouse performance metrics like picker performance, inventory levels, picking activity, and more. Lack of visibility into KPIs makes it difficult to identify areas of improvement and implement necessary process changes. According to research by Zebra Technologies, 68% of warehouse operators will prioritize increasing asset visibility, real-time decision-making, and data-driven performance by 2024.

A WMS can analyze the data from disparate sources to track warehouse picking rate, picking accuracy, order completion time, ongoing picking activities, and more. Additionally, it provides real-time visibility into the status of open orders, picked items, and products pending pickup. 

Your warehouse managers can leverage these insights to monitor order progress and address order picking challenges accordingly. This visibility is essential to maintaining accurate stock counts, predicting demand, and identifying potential shortages.

Scalability During Peak Demand

E-commerce has grown significantly in the period immediately following the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, the load of orders during peak demand has increased as an omni-industry phenomenon. The USPS delivered approximately 16 billion pieces of mail and packages during the holiday season of 2019 alone. 

Peak periods like holidays or sales events lead to greater picking challenges due to a massive influx of orders. Your warehouse operations need to be able to scale to allocate resources and manage increased order volumes effectively. A rigid warehouse picking process will increase order fulfillment time during peak demand, leading to delayed deliveries and labor overutilization.

Peak seasons offer a tremendous business opportunity and being unable to capitalize can lead to lost sales and lower profit margins. Repeated instances of delayed order processing or incorrect deliveries damage the brand’s reputation and financial performance in the long run.

With a warehouse management system (WMS), you can:

  • Get the insights necessary to streamline warehouse picking tasks, optimize picking routes, prepare smart picklists, and recommend proper picking methods based on growing order volumes.
  • Use warehouse automation and automated warehouse picking to support your pickers with picking tasks during peak demand.
  • Enable your warehouse managers to predict and serve peak demands effectively by analyzing historical trends and patterns.
  • Plan and allocate labor resources during periods of peak demand with visibility into picker performance, picking rate, and order status. Ensure your pickers are not overworked or underutilized.
  • Use warehouse automation to ensure worker safety during peak seasons and long shifts.

Dynamic Picking Needs

In light of the growing demand for faster e-commerce fulfillment, today’s warehouses need to accommodate greater flexibility and responsiveness than traditional paper-based systems can offer. Businesses must be able to support multiple warehouse picking methods based on unique picking needs to support omnichannel order fulfillment across different economies of scale. 

A warehouse management system allows businesses to address order picking challenges by analyzing changes in order profiles and demand patterns. Based on the situation, it recommends appropriate picking strategies, like zone picking, batch picking, order picking, or automated picking in order to reduce travel time and increase overall productivity. With ERP and WMS integration, you can pre-define the pickup method based on:

  • Size, weight, or storage requirements
  • Warehouse layout, storage systems, and available resources
  • Client preferences, specified requirements, or recommended personalizations
  • Sales patterns, seasonal trends, or promotional events

Inefficient Space Management

In a warehouse, every square foot of space matters. Mismanagement of space can lead to a whole slew of warehouse picking problems like reduced picker productivity and increased travel time. Proper space utilization can significantly reduce the time and effort it takes to locate, identify and pick products.

Better space management means accommodating more pallets per square foot and staying on top of customer fulfillment requirements. According to a report by Modern Materials Handling, average space utilization in warehouses is 85.6%. As you can tell from the numbers, efficient warehouse space management is still a picking challenge that eludes most warehouse operations.

A warehouse management system (WMS) can analyze warehouse layout, product dimensions, and storage requirements to ensure minimal obstruction to the order picking process. Analysis of historical sales data can reveal the most optimal placements for inventory within the warehouse based on ABC analysis and SKU similarity. Your warehouse managers can group frequently-bought-together items in close proximity and high-demand items in prime storage locations for reduced travel times and faster order fulfillment.

Solving Picking Challenges With the Right Technology

Ultimately, the right technology can be the missing link when it comes to optimizing mission-critical warehousing processes like picking. 

Integrating hardware devices and WMS can ensure a smooth flow of information between interdependent domains. Cross-domain visibility can empower your decision-makers and warehouse workers to overcome order picking challenges with the right information at the right time.

Warehouse automation, real-time visibility, and performance monitoring and reporting can significantly increase your picker productivity. With access to the right technology, your managers can leverage task prioritization, dynamic picking strategies, smart picklists, automated picking, electronic data transfer, intelligent order batching, streamlined picker routes, and more to make warehouse picking leaner and smarter.

A WMS can bridge the gap between traditional and manual warehouse processes with predictive analytics and real-time decision-making guidance. People, processes, and tools are all essential components of a warehouse ecosystem and must collaborate to meet the demands of today’s fast-paced, e-commerce-driven market.

Next Steps

Intelligent warehouse systems make today’s warehouses leaner and smarter, providing insights into every minute aspect of warehouse operations. With e-commerce showing no signs of slowing down, traditional warehouse operations are finding it increasingly hard to scale at the pace of omnichannel order fulfillment demands. 

A smart warehouse can optimize the order picking process to extract maximum value and serve more customers at scale. A WMS removes operational silos in modern warehouse picking processes and allows businesses to overcome picking challenges by using the right technology. 

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