Tips for quicker product picking

Whether your goal is to improve the productivity of your distribution picking process or to maintain its peak performance, efficient product picking starts with two basics: measurement and automation.

It’s true: You can’t improve what you can’t measure, and if you want proof of that, just visit a distribution center. Successful distribution centers run like a clock — one that’s been inspected, calibrated and synchronized. They likely use the Six Sigma DMAIC model: Define, measure, analyze, improve and control.

DEFINE: What are your specific goals for shortening your product picking process? Are they driven by margins? Incentives? Safety? Must they be achieved by a specific date? Defining the goals will ensure that the right results are achieved.

MEASURE: How does your process work now? Capture that benchmark with an end-to-end measurement, documenting all the steps along the way. Once process enhancements are in place, ongoing measurement will be essential to your program of continual improvement.

ANALYZE: Which steps in your process work and which don’t? The benchmark may show flaws in workstation design, technology, mechanics or employee performance. Share the findings with your warehouse associates. Together you can find ways to eliminate waste, work hazards — and customer complaints.

MOTIVATE: There’s nothing wrong with promoting a bit of healthy competition. Keep it reasonable by mentoring pickers to meet or exceed standards. Then monitor performance with manual tracking sheets for each person to fill out as each task is completed, or with RF technology. By making results available for the team to view, the team will tend to improve picking efficiency and timeliness.

IMPROVE: You’ve defined a goal that must be reached through the product-picking process. You’ve measured the current process. And you’ve identified what is needed to achieve a higher level of performance. Now employ the available technology tools that can be added or recalibrated to meet your goals.

Increase efficiency by automating the processes you have in place. Select a labor management system for your needs that will capture and report measurements across a range of warehouse activities beyond just picking. If you are already using radio frequency terminals to capture distribution center task data, it will be fed directly into these systems, including elemental activity within each process.

It’s not always necessary (or economically justified) to achieve maximum automation. Here are some options, from basic to robust, you should consider:

  • RF Terminals (handheld or forklift-mounted)

    Speed picking and reduce errors by up to 60% when you replace paper picking with devices that allow direct input of activity information into the WMS.

  • Wearable RF Devices

    Productivity was improved in each pick operation by over 20% in a recent case study. Because these devices are small enough to be mounted on a picker’s belt or even worn on the wrist (with attached scanner ring), they speed up the process by freeing both hands.

  • Visually Enabled RF

    Reduce the time pickers spend selecting the correct item by displaying images of the actual product, rather than descriptions, on their RF device screen. The picker skips the barcode scanning step while maintaining a high level of picking accuracy.

  • Pick to Light

    Light displays mounted above or below a fixed pick location provide quick visual confirmation of what to pick and the quantity. Once the activity is completed, a simple click/push confirmation by the picker on the unit confirms activity to the WMS.

  • Voice Directed Picking

    Eliminate visual reading altogether with a headset that provides audio direction to the picker and accepts spoken confirmations. This totally eliminates the need for scanning and provides efficiency in high-volume case picking operations.

  • Full Robotic Automated Picking, Sortation and Containerization

    Though this requires a high level of investment, there are instances where the ROI is high when all factors are considered. With this pure technology scenario, the machine handles the complete picking process without any routine human intervention.

The first step toward any of these solutions is planning, because over-engineering a solution can be just as inefficient as using manual processes. There are reputable consulting firms, third-party logistics providers, and materials handling solution companies that will develop the right combination of solutions for your operation, based on an analysis of your workforce parameters, type of product mix, inventory requirements, outbound SLAs and shipment types. Overall, the key to quicker picking is to implement measurements and, if possible, some form of automation and/or technology.

Kristi Montgomery, is vice president for information technology at Kenco Logistic Services.

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