What is Picking in a Warehouse?
There are six processes that are fundamental to a warehouse operation. These processes are receiving, putaway, storage, picking, packing, and shipping. Of all these six processes, picking is of utmost importance as more than half a warehouse’s operational cost goes into this. Warehouse picking comes in effect after a customer places an order. A picker is assigned to collect the listed items and fulfill the customer’s order. This is a labor-intensive task that demands a lot of movement and concentration to ensure that the correct order is sent to the customer.
Different Types of Picking
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 picking strategy can drastically improve your warehouse productivity and ability to fulfill orders.
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 workflow, especially for high-pick operations.
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 saves a lot of time in traveling to and from, to get the same SKU multiple times and optimizes fulfillment operations.
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 is the most common type of picking 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).
Automated Warehouse Picking Systems
There are a lot of different picking systems that can be incorporated in a warehouse to make it easier for the picker to fulfill orders quickly and efficiently. These systems deploy modern 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.
In the Pick-to-light 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 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.
Using augmented reality, vision picking aims to make the 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 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 continuous quality control allows the warehouse to do fewer audits.
Cobots (collaborative robots) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) come under the category of robotic picking. A robotic picking system 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.
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 decreases the time otherwise spent on moving around the warehouse and helps find correct items in the first go.
Common Challenges Faced During Warehouse Picking
Warehouses face numerous challenges during the picking process. These challenges can set back the picking process, lead to errors in order fulfillment, and can be harmful to overall business operations as well as customer satisfaction.
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 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 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. 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 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 picking process, and more. Access to appropriate data makes it easier to measure the right kind of KPIs to improve warehouse performance and efficiency.
Automating the Warehouse 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 processes. Not only does it provide several benefits but also helps warehouses to stay ahead of their competitors. Integration of robotic or semi-robotic systems, smart wearable devices, advanced data analytics, and machine learning algorithms assist pickers to complete the picking process quicker by automating repetitive and redundant tasks. All in all, the warehouse automation industry is growing quickly, with innovations and new solutions being developed regularly.
Benefits of Warehouse Picking Automation
Warehouse management software equips managers with enhanced visibility and control of different processes in the picking cycle. With the aid of advanced technologies, automated warehouse picking systems can process multiple orders at the same time, and that too with improved accuracy. They take less time to find an item and fulfill the order and decrease the chances of incorrect order dispatch to the customer. Automated 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 picking process too. In times of high seasonal demands, these systems can be scaled as per requirement easily, without the need for extra infrastructure or workforce.
Why Hopstack Could be Your Next Warehouse Picking Solution
Hopstack’s cloud-agnostic AI-powered digital warehouse platform provides a solution for every warehouse process 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 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.
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.