Hopstack Guides

Automated Order Picking: Key Methods, Systems, & Strategies

This detailed guide discusses the various aspects Warehouse order picking: automation, functions, process, challenges, and the future outlook.

Food fulfillment operations

Warehousing involves numerous processes for successful order fulfillment continuously and efficiently. Warehouse picking is one of the key processes that defines when the right products are picked from the right place to fulfill the right order. 

Let’s dig deeper into what is warehouse picking along with different order picking methods, warehouse picking systems, and more in this complete order picking guide

What is Order Picking in a Warehouse?

Warehouse order picking refers to the process where individual items/goods are picked from storage locations within the warehouse or distribution center to fulfill the customer orders. 

Once the order is received and processed, the warehouse picker (either a person or an automated picking system) goes to the right location(s) in the warehouse and picks the items as per the order(s) in a cart or conveyor system. 

Order picking is also known as warehouse picking or warehouse order picking in warehousing terminologies. Warehouse picking is one of the most important of all warehouse processes as it requires high operational costs, movement of goods, labor-intensive efforts, and investments in automated systems.

Different Warehouse Picking Methods

There are different ways in which an item can be picked to fulfill the order. Based on the warehouse’s size, customer demands, availability of manual labor, and the kind of inventory, choosing a picking strategy can be an important decision.

Choosing an efficient order picking method can drastically improve your warehouse productivity and ability to fulfill orders.

Wave Picking

A combination of batch and zone picking, wave picking is beneficial for large warehouses receiving multiple high-volume orders. In wave picking, a worker receives a combined order list and picks different items on the list in a single wave. 

It allows warehouses to complete orders quickly and with less staff as the picker doesn’t have to go back and forth for picking items. Waves can be classified on parameters such as customer location, delivery date, order frequency, order types, etc. 

Combining zone picking with wave picking creates an efficient warehouse workflow, especially for high-pick operations.

Batch Picking

Batch Picking is useful when there are multiple orders for the same SKU. The picker needs to go to the picking location only once and he can bring the required number of SKUs to fulfill multiple orders at the same time. 

This warehouse picking process saves a lot of time in traveling to and from, to get the same SKU multiple times and optimizes fulfillment operations.

Zone Picking

In zone picking, the warehouse is divided into different zones that are assigned to a dedicated worker. When an order comes in, each worker is responsible for retrieving SKUs placed in their zones only. 

The carton is then passed over to another zone for picking SKUs present in that zone. Once all the SKUs are retrieved, the complete order is sent to a centralized place for packing. 

It is suitable for completing orders quickly as the order gets divided into different zones and picking multiple SKUs for an order can happen simultaneously.

Discrete Picking

Discrete picking is the most common type of order picking in warehouse that is followed in most warehouses. Here, one picker is responsible for completing one order and travels around the warehouse to pick SKUs mentioned in the order. 

It is a simple process that doesn’t have a fixed timeline to fulfill and depends on when the picker has completed picking the SKUs. Ideal for small warehouses and paper-based picking, this technique is the least efficient method of order picking and makes the warehouse slow (an order can’t be packed unless every SKU is retrieved by the same person).

Automating the Warehouse Order Picking Process

The global warehouse automation market is set to cross the $30 billion mark by 2026. It is easy to understand why warehouses are keen to automate their picking processes. Not only does automated warehouse picking provide several benefits but also helps warehouses to stay ahead of their competitors. 

Integration of robotic or semi-robotic order picking systems, smart wearable devices, advanced data analytics, and machine learning algorithms assist pickers to complete the warehouse picking process quicker by automating repetitive and redundant tasks. 

Warehouse picking automation has been on the rise in the last few years especially after the Covid pandemic and the situations arising by it necessitating the use of automated picking systems. 

All in all, the warehouse picking automation industry is growing quickly, with innovations and new solutions being developed regularly.

Key Automated Picking Systems In Warehouse

There are a lot of different automated picking systems that can be incorporated in a warehouse to make it easier for the picker to fulfill orders quickly and efficiently. 

These order picking systems or automated warehouse picking systems deploy modern warehouse technologies to assist the picker in finding the shortest route to an item, verify the items as per the order, and even perform certain repetitive tasks.

Pick-to-light

In the Pick-to-light automated picking system, LEDs are placed for every SKU distributed around the warehouse. Once an order comes in, the picker scans individual item barcodes attached to a temporary holding container, like a shipping carton. 

The LED light attached to that item lights up automatically and the picker is then guided to that item’s location. 

Once the item is picked, a button is pressed to confirm the picking and the picker then moves on to the next illuminating area. A digital readout or an acknowledgment button can be used with this system.

Voice Picking

Voice picking is an automated warehouse picking system that requires the use of wearable technology in the form of smart headsets. An order management system analyzes the incoming order and relays the best path for a picker to choose and pick items to fulfill the order. 

It improves the accuracy and speed of order picking and eliminates the need for carrying handheld devices like barcodes and RF scanners.

Vision Picking

Using augmented reality, vision picking aims to make the automated order picking process 100% error-free. It employs a head-mounted display that has a wearable PC, an integrated camera, control software, and is connected to the warehouse management software system

The integrated navigation system displays an optimized route for the picker to the exact location of the targeted SKU and verifies it visually as well. This order picking system with continuous quality control allows the warehouse to do fewer audits.

Robotic Picking

Cobots (collaborative robots) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) come under the category of robotic picking and are part of automated warehouse picking system. A robotic picking system is a warehouse picking automation system that helps to automate either some parts or the entire picking process in a warehouse. 

These systems can improve the efficiency and speed with which items are picked and sent to the packing station. While cobots work in conjunction with the warehouse staff, AMRs can perform tasks independently, freeing up manual pickers.

Scanner-Based Picking

Mobile scanners are a great way for pickers to ensure that the correct item is picked to fulfill the order. Mobile picking can be achieved by attaching barcodes to every item in the warehouse. 

Pickers receive a consolidated list of the items to be picked, an optimized route for all the items, and a quick verification if the item picked is correct as per the order or not. 

This warehouse picking system decreases the time otherwise spent on moving around the warehouse and helps find correct items in the first go.

Common Warehouse Order Picking Challenges

Suboptimal Picking Routes

More than 80% of a worker’s time is spent on picking items from different parts of the warehouse to complete an order. This happens due to suboptimal order picking routes for every product. 

This time wastage leads to delayed orders, which in turn leads to unhappy customers and bad business. Lack of standardized processes gives rise to mistakes as well, which affects the warehouse’s capacity to complete orders every day.

Inefficient Utilization of Workforce and Equipment

Since more than half the warehouse workforce is employed in the picking and packing process, effective utilization of the workforce is fundamental for an optimized flow of products. 

Manual pen and paper-based employee management systems are sometimes unable to accurately analyze if workforce utilization is low or high with respect to a given task. Similarly, training just a few employees to use specific equipment also limits the warehouse’s capability to keep up uninterrupted production.

High Rate of Picking Errors

For a warehouse aiming to increase productivity, picking error rates of 1-3% can prove to be costly. If a wrong SKU is picked for an order, it needs to get checked at the packing station and sent back. 

The whole warehouse picking process needs to be repeated, which can delay the delivery process as well. If the packing station doesn’t rectify the mistake, a wrong order is dispatched to the customer. 

Moreover violating FIFO and FEFO can also cause picking errors and loss of valuable inventory. FIFO stands first in first out and FEFO stands for first expired first out. These are important picking methods for products with an expiry date or products which need to be fast moving. 

Apart from making a poor brand impression, re-picking of items, shipping, customer service work, unnecessary labor, replacement or refund, cost a lot of money too. This is the money that a warehouse can easily save.

Lack of Integration with Picking Devices and Warehouse Software

Warehouses that still follow redundant practices end up consuming a lot of time, money, and labor for every process. Inefficient processes and lack of integration with picking devices not only delay order fulfillment but are a prime source of manual errors too. 

Warehouses that are yet to adopt mobile technologies or aren’t utilizing their warehouse management software up to its full potential are losing out on numerous opportunities, benefits, and customers.

Manual Task Allocation

Paper-based processes often lead to some errors or mistakes while picking. Allocating tasks manually might work for a smaller warehouse, but for a big operation, it can cause a lot of difficulties. 

Efficient prioritization of orders is not done, leading to recent orders getting picked first while older orders keep getting delayed. It is hard to track the progress of order with manual task allocation. 

This also makes it difficult to hold anyone accountable for any mistake. Thus, an already long process becomes lengthier and more inefficient.

Lack of Visibility in Picking Operations and Metrics

From receiving an order to filling the cart with different SKUs, the warehouse order picking process involves a lot of steps that can go wrong. Owing to manual handling of tasks and pen and paper record-keeping, visibility of picking operations diminishes as well. 

Warehouse managers are unable to track their pickers, two pickers fulfilling the same order, not keeping an accurate inventory count - all this happens due to poor clarity about what is happening and what to do next.

Not tracking the correct metrics also limits the warehouse’s ability to analyze which processes are being done inefficiently, which picker makes frequent mistakes, bottlenecks in the warehouse picking process, and more. Access to appropriate data makes it easier to measure the right kind of KPIs to improve warehouse performance and efficiency.

Benefits of Warehouse Picking Automation

Warehouse management software or order picking software equips managers with enhanced visibility and control of different processes in the picking cycle. 

Automated order picking systems in warehouses can provide a number of benefits. These systems often result in improved efficiency, accuracy, and productivity, while also reducing labor costs and improving worker safety. Here's a breakdown of these advantages:

1. Efficiency and Productivity

Automated order picking systems can handle order picking tasks faster than humans, increasing the throughput of a warehouse. Additionally, these automated picking systems can often operate around the clock, further boosting productivity.

2. Picking Accuracy:

Automated picking systems reduce the chance of human error, resulting in fewer mistakes in picking and packing orders. This can help improve customer satisfaction by ensuring that customers receive the correct products in their orders.

3. Labor Savings

Automated picking systems can reduce the need for manual labor in the warehouse, helping to save on labor costs. This is particularly beneficial in areas with high labor costs or labor shortages.

4. Space Optimization 

Automated order picking systems, such as automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), can make better use of warehouse layout and space by storing items in high-density configurations and retrieving them as needed.

5. Improved Worker Safety

By automating the order picking process, there's less need for workers to perform physically demanding tasks, such as lifting heavy items or climbing ladders. This can help reduce the risk of workplace injuries.

6. Scalability

Warehouse picking automation can be easier to scale up or down in response to changes in demand. This makes them a good fit for businesses with seasonal fluctuations or rapid growth along with expedited shipping times.

7. Inventory Control

Automated picking systems often come with better inventory tracking capabilities, improving inventory accuracy and control. It can help reduce the inventory management challenges of understocking or overstocking. 

8. Reduced Training Time

Since the machines are doing the work, there's less need to train new staff members on the order picking process. The staff can be trained easily and seamlessly on using machines, order picking robots, and systems. 

9. Performance Analysis

Automated picking systems also enhance the visibility of each picker for the manager to analyze their performance efficiently. Being connected to the central warehouse management system makes it easy to keep a tab on the entire warehouse picking process too.


However, it's important to note that while automated systems offer many advantages, they also require significant investment and ongoing maintenance. Businesses need to carefully assess their needs and the potential return on investment before deciding to implement these systems.

Why Hopstack Can Be Your Next Order Picking Software

Hopstack’s cloud-agnostic AI-powered digital warehouse platform provides a perfect order picking software solution for every warehouse processes right from receipt to dispatch. 

Picking is one of the most important and demanding aspects of warehouse management. With the help of our automated warehouse picking solution, businesses can realize improvement in process efficiency and an increase in overall revenue.

Optimal Picker Routing

The first step in the warehouse picking process is finding the right SKU to fulfill the order. Hopstack’s automated warehouse picking systems use advanced machine learning algorithms to calculate the optimal route for a picker to retrieve SKUs. 

It considers different parameters, like the location of each SKU, size, weight, availability, and more, to determine the shortest route in which the order can be fulfilled. This fastens the picking process, allowing pickers to fulfill more orders every day.

Smart Picklist

Smart picklist enables you to leverage dynamic picking zone, order, batch, list of items to be picked resulting in minimization of picker distance traveled and maximization of pick rate. 

Picking Verification and Error Reduction

Reducing the errors in picking can be done through various checks and balances, use of scanners to scan SKUs, and checking at packing station.

Seamless Integration with Picking Hardware

Whatever picking system you might be using in your warehouse, Hopstack can integrate with it all. Be it the pick-to-light system, voice picking, wearable devices, or smart glasses, Hopstack’s warehouse picking automation solution integrates seamlessly with every system and provides greater control over them.

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