PICK-TO-LIGHT TECHNOLOGY: `Enlightening’ fulfillment

Although pick-to-light warehouse technology has been around for 20 years, it has only recently taken off among catalogers, thanks largely to software and systems advancements that simplify the process.

Pick-to-light technology speeds up fulfillment by electronically “reading” order pick tickets, determining the most efficient processing sequence, then transmitting signals to special light bars mounted on the storage racks that house the products to be picked. The light bars then flash (so that the picker knows exactly where to go) and display the quantity to be picked. After picking the items, the warehouse worker presses a button or scans the shipping label at the light module, depending on the system, so that the computer can verify that the order was picked correctly. The picker can also report any merchandise shortages by pressing buttons on the light modules.

By minimizing the time spent searching for the correct SKUs, pick-to-light technology can boost picking rates. Indeed, New York-based cosmetics marketer Avon increased the pieces picked per hour 10%-15% after installing pick-to-light technology in its four distribution centers in 1991, says Roosevelt Tolliver, vice president of customer service. The company also reduced its pick errors 50% after installing pick-to-light.

Because each light bar costs $200-$300, pick-to-light technology is often reserved for high-volume, fast-pick areas, rather than for every SKU. And most operations professionals agree that pick-to-light is best suited for catalogers that have a varied assortment of SKUs that they sell regularly, rather than just a few big sellers.

But some catalogers, such as multititle mailer Williams-Sonoma, find that pick-to-light doesn’t improve performance significantly, if at all. “Many of the catalog orders at Williams-Sonoma were for only two or three units, so it wasn’t the best application for us,” says vice president of operations Jerry Owens. The kitchenware and home products cataloger had installed a pick-to-light system in its Memphis distribution center in 1995 but stopped using it this year.

But Owens says the company may consider using pick-to-light technology again, particularly during the busy season. Since the system requires minimal training, it allows you to easily bring on board temporary labor and clerical employees if you need last-minute holiday picking help, he says.

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