B2B (business-to-business) fulfillment typically handles a larger volume of units per order as compared to B2C (business-to-consumer) fulfillment. As such, warehouse operations that deal with B2B fulfillment require a different approach than traditional B2C warehousing practices. Pallet picking is an important practice in B2B fulfillment that streamlines the movement of larger order volumes and multiple SKUs (stock keeping units).
Pallet picking methods offer significant upsides to traditional picking processes that improve the overall speed, efficiency, and accuracy of picking tasks. Depending on the particular product, pallets can contain dozens, if not hundreds, of units. Pallet pickers can therefore move large volumes of products while picking pallets, leading to less room for errors.
Picking individual boxes can expose the pickers to various touchpoints for error, reducing fulfillment efficiency and accuracy in the process. There’s also the additional risk factor to consider — using proper equipment like warehouse forklifts reduces the risk of injury in the movement of heavy pallets.
Common Pallet Picking Challenges and Pitfalls
- Inaccurate inventory information: Pallet picking efficiency directly depends on accurate inventory information. Your pallet pickers should have accurate, real-time information on the location and contents of the warehouse pallets.Inventorying data includes granular details on how the pallets are stored, configurations, and SKU arrangements for discrete pallets. These particulars inform pallet picking strategies like case picking or layer picking. Warehouse managers also use this data to optimize storage density and pallet placement for maximum accessibility and safety.Accurate inventory information is necessary to maintain high fulfillment efficiency throughout the full picking process. Incorrect inventory information will result in the wrong pallets being picked, leading to increased travel times for your pallet pickers and delayed order fulfillment.
- Unoptimized warehouse layout: The warehouse layout must be conducive to streamlined pallet picking processes. There must be enough space between aisles for the movement and operation of warehouse forklifts, pallet trucks, trolleys, and pallet jacks. Pallets containing high-consumption products should be placed on lower levels for easier access while mid to low-consumption pallets can be placed at higher levels. Warehouse layout and restocking practices directly impact picking efficiency and should be optimized on a priority basis.
- Inadequate equipment and training: Pallet picking methods are heavily dependent on the appropriate equipment like warehouse forklifts and pallet jacks. As such, warehouse picking requires your pallet pickers to be thoroughly trained in using the right equipment. Inadequate training or unavailability of enough equipment can bring down order fulfillment and picking accuracy. You’ll also need to regularly maintain picking equipment through preventive maintenance because faulty equipment slows down picking efficiency and can cause workplace accidents.
- Safety concerns: Warehouse pallets are heavy because they hold massive volumes of products. According to a survey by the Association of Pallet Networks, the average pallet weight in the UK was 369kg in 2022. There’s always an inherent amount of risk involved when handling significantly heavy warehouse pallets. Poorly stacked pallets, faulty equipment, or mishandling of pallets or equipment can lead to workplace accidents at any time — if the proper steps are not taken to avoid them.
Given the challenges, here are the key tips in improving the pallet picking process and making the entire B2B Fulfillment process more effective.
1. Optimize Warehouse Layout for Pallet Picking
Warehouse layout optimization and storage management are essential to streamline pallet picking processes from a B2B perspective. The average traffic of your warehouse operations and the nature of your products can influence the overall design and shape of your warehouse to follow a particular flow, be it U flow, I flow, or L flow.
Irrespective of the shape, you must optimize the warehouse space for dynamic movement and storage of pallets. Some options you can consider to enhance picking efficiency in the warehouse are:
Prioritize Velocity for Faster Order Fulfillment
Store pallets containing fast-moving products closer to the shipping areas and in accessible sections of the warehouse. This allows your warehouse pickers to facilitate the fast movement of pallets, leading to much higher fulfillment efficiency.
Similarly, low-velocity products can be stored further away or in higher levels of the racking systems. A WMS system can help accurately identify and prioritize the velocity of products and organize them accordingly. This helps reduce the travel time for pallet pickers.
Utilize the vertical space in warehouses
While warehouse spaces are relatively less expensive to rent than office spaces, they are still not cheap. According to a study by Statista, $20.13 was the average asking rent per square foot for industrial property in Los Angeles, CA. It’s imperative to make the best use of whatever warehouse space you have available for effective B2B fulfillment.
High-quality pallet racking systems can increase the available space for storing warehouse pallets without increasing the overall footprint. While racking systems can be moderately expensive, you can safely utilize your warehouse space to the maximum and accommodate dynamic storage strategies based on velocity.
Utilize different pallet racking methods
You can use different pallet racking methods, depending on the velocity and nature of the products in the pallets.
- Selective pallet racking: It increases picking efficiency and accuracy by allowing the warehouse pickers to ‘selectively’ access whichever pallet they need for order fulfillment. Selective pallet racking is preferable for operations that involve a wide range of SKUs.
- Double-deep pallet racking: It involves increasing warehouse storage density by storing pallets two rows deep instead of one. However, it can hamper accessibility and is more useful in storage areas containing the same, high-consumption products.
- Drive-In/Drive-Thru Pallet Racking: It allows warehouse forklifts to directly pick warehouse pallets from the racking systems. It can follow either a FIFO or LIFO principle based on the number of access points.
- Push-Back Pallet Racking: It involves storing pallets at a slight incline. When a new pallet is added to the racking system, it pushes back the pallet behind it for maximum space usage without direct warehouse picker involvement.
- Pallet Flow Racking: It uses gravity to simulate a flow and automatically rotates the pallets following the FIFO method. Pallet flow racking is more useful for pallets containing date-restricted items.
2. Streamline Pallet Placement and Inventory Management
A high-functioning inventory management system is the gateway to multiple benefits in smart warehouse operations, not limited to pallet picking. Optimizing pallet placement allows warehouse pickers to access the order units easily, leading to faster travel times, fewer errors, and faster order fulfillment.
Warehouse operations need continuous collaboration between warehouse management systems (WMS) and floor managers to optimize inventory management and pallet placement in real time.
A warehouse management system (WMS) can significantly simplify the inventory management process for faster and more efficient pallet picking.
- Real-time inventory tracking: With a WMS, you can trace individual pallets and the quantity of SKUs inside each pallet throughout the order fulfillment pipeline. Exact visibility into the location, weight, and number of pallets in real time can guide picking decisions. This traceability reduces the chances of picking errors, misplacements, or discrepancies in picking activities by the warehouse pickers.
- Intelligently guided picking: A WMS continuously updates inventory information and system records, and pallet locations. As such, it is best positioned to provide guided picking insights to pallet pickers on the fastest picker routes, which pallets to pick, and what picking methods to utilize.
- Stock accuracy: WMS enables the use of integrated hardware devices like RFID readers and barcode scanners to eliminate the need for data entry. Combined with regular cycle counting for periodic inventory audits, it becomes very simple to track misplaced or missing pallets. In fact, proper inventory management makes the lives of the pallet pickers easier, facilitating greater picking efficiency and accuracy.
- Reporting and Analytics: A WMS will analyze historical data and provide predictive analytics and reporting into the KPIs of your warehouse operations. These insights are crucial to identifying and remedying important areas of improvement in the picking process and improving the B2B fulfillment pipeline as a whole.
On a side note, another important area where we see a lot of warehouse operations underperform is adjusting based on seasonal demand fluctuations. A warehouse management system (WMS) can integrate with demand forecasting systems to analyze historical data and market trends.
Based on these insights, it can recommend adjustments in pallet slotting and placements and dynamically reconfigure replenishment strategies. Flexing along with anticipated seasonal demand is necessary to reduce costs and maintain optimal stock levels. Overstocking and stockouts can both negatively impact B2B fulfillment, especially during seasonal peaks.
3. Guide and Optimize Your Pallet Picking Rate
A WMS can guide your warehouse managers and warehouse pickers to maximize picking efficiency and minimize fulfillment errors. Guided picking and intelligent automation can improve picking accuracy and picker productivity through holistic oversight of inventorying and pallet picking processes.
Using the right software in combination with existing warehouse tools and equipment can considerably increase your operational capabilities. Paper-based processes expose warehouse operations to manual errors and slow down B2B fulfillment by degrees.
4. Determine the Appropriate Pallet Picking Strategies
Warehouse operations have to choose between various pallet picking strategies based on unique B2B fulfillment needs and seasonal demand fluctuations. Some of the more popular pallet picking methods are:
- Discrete picking: It involves picking individual items from pallets.
- Case picking: This is the preferred method when the order requires entire cases or cartons of products.
Case Picking vs Pallet Picking
In full pallet picking, a warehouse forklift operator usually picks the entire pallet. In case picking, the warehouse picker picks complete cases or cartons from a storage medium, which is a pallet in most cases.
- Layer picking: Sometimes, orders require an entire layer of products from storage. Pallet pickers stack an entire layer of products on the pallet to maintain structural integrity and stick to layer configurations.
- Zone picking: It is a viable option if your warehouse has been divided into clearly defined zones with pallet pickers assigned to designated zones.
- Batch picking: In batch picking, pallet pickers gather pallets for multiple orders simultaneously and separate them for B2B fulfillment later.
Deciding which pallet picking method to choose depends on a variety of factors like order volume, product characteristics, warehouse layout, business requirements, and more. Without guided picking, it’s not always possible to make the right decisions.
It can be challenging to rely solely on paper-based methods to choose between dynamic picking methods in real time. A WMS can analyze the situation on the ground and use historical data to provide guided picking recommendations to pallet pickers. This can greatly reduce the time lost between decision-making and decision-implementation.
5. Empower Pallet Picking With the Appropriate Tools
The right technology and equipment can greatly speed up the speed and accuracy of pallet picking, for both B2C and B2B fulfillment. Buying and maintaining pallet picking equipment can add to overall costs — the trick is to find the perfect balance between profitability and operational excellence.
There are various pallet picking equipment that can improve fulfillment efficiency.
A warehouse management system (WMS) can integrate with every single hardware device in your warehouse. It provides a single, unified point of access to pallet picking equipment, improving the overall B2B fulfillment efficiency.
WMS can analyze data from multiple touchpoints in the pallet picking process and directly communicate with equipment like AGVs or robotic systems. Pallet picking equipment can process the instructions and autonomously carry out picking tasks with great precision.
Limiting human intervention further reduces the chance of errors while providing real-time updates on picking progress to the warehouse management system (WMS).
You can also use a WMS to send smart picklists and guided picking instructions directly to the pallet picking equipment or wearable technologies. Transmission of data in real time between warehouse equipment and WMS provides the opportunity to run reports on efficiency, equipment health, and usage statistics.
Pallet picking is an essential unit of B2B fulfillment when it comes to running warehouse operations at scale. The future of efficient pallet picking will most certainly require a combination of warehouse automation, robotic process automation, and picker empowerment.
However, to know what’s best for your warehouse, you need to take a deeper look from an operational standpoint. Optimizing pallet picking processes can often incur hefty costs and you need to weigh the risk-to-reward ratio for the best business outcomes.