WIRELESS PICKING NOW OR LATER?

Jan 01, 2005 10:30 PM  By

Order picking is the most labor-intensive function in the distribution center. It requires more skill than other positions and commands a higher pay scale. It is not unusual to find that picking accounts for 40%-50% of the total labor cost. Top-notch order pickers maneuver adroitly through the distribution center, using shortcuts and work-arounds to select routes and fulfill orders efficiently. Their accuracy rates are high, guaranteeing that the correct products are selected. They utilize their knowledge of the merchandise, locations, and packers to control the workflow.

Training for new pickers begins with single line orders and moves to more complicated combination batches as they master processes, products, and routings. Imagine the cost savings and service improvements if the skills of the best pickers could be transferred to the entire picking team. Wireless picking promises to do exactly that and more.

PROMISES, PROMISES

Wireless picking eliminates the need for extensive training, paper management, and data entry by electronically directing the picker to the location, product, and cart bin position. A variety of wireless picking options is available, including RF terminal and voice recognition technology. Pick-to-light systems provide direction by lighting the destination slots or bins for product placement. These options are integrated with a warehouse management system to provide real-time data collection and improve inventory accuracy.

Wireless picking solution providers promise productivity and accuracy improvements of 10%-70% over manual picking. The potential is exciting, but to decide whether this technology is right for you, you must start by assessing the challenges and benefits of conversion.

IF IT AIN’T BROKE

The first consideration is the effectiveness of your current pick team. If they are efficient, accurate, and stable, there may be little to gain in cost savings with the new technology. In fact, it is likely that productivity will go down with the implementation of wireless picking. For instance, wireless picking eliminates the ability to redirect because the path is predetermined and pickers do not have visibility of future items.

Foot travel can also be increased if reverse picking is not available in the new technology. Most wireless systems use a location sequence number to determine the flow. These are typically assigned to direct movement down one aisle and up the next in a serpentine pattern. Productivity is lost when the batched order dynamics have clustered groups or do not include items on every aisle. For example, consider a pick batch that has items primarily in the forward sections (where conventional wisdom places high-volume inventory) with a few odd items in the rear sections. Skilled pickers will weave in and out of the forward sections without traveling the full length of any aisle. Once the high-volume items are picked, they will move to the rear to finish the batch. There is significant savings in following this path rather than the sequenced path that would be provided by an automated system. It can reduce travel time by as much as 50%.

Nevertheless, secondary benefits may accrue to adopting wireless picking. While there may not be a significant productivity increase, you may still realize cost savings and service improvements. You need to include every area that is affected in your feasibility evaluation. This includes improvements in inventory accuracy and movement through the facility as well as any reductions in paper costs and fulfillment time between order receipt and shipment.

Wireless picking and its supporting technology are exciting because they can be selectively implemented. In fact, the best implementation may be a combination of methodologies that match specific process requirements. You may choose to take a path starting with pick-to-light and expanding into voice recognition. This creates an environment where the benefits can be tested before making the maximum investment.

SOONER OR LATER

Every function within the DC is affected by the quality of the order-picking team. Many firms are fortunate to have great pickers who understand and perform their jobs well, maximizing throughput and customer satisfaction. If your company falls into this category, then wireless picking is not right for you — yet. The technology is constantly improving, and costs will decrease as its use increases. This will make it a viable solution in the near future.

Companies that are highly seasonal, turnover-prone, or inefficient can benefit by installing wireless picking now. The savings from improvements in productivity and accuracy will quickly offset the costs. There will also be secondary benefits in packing efficiency because of the improved order flow to the packing stations. If your company belongs to this group, start the evaluation process now. Pay special attention to how programs sequence the picking path and group the products. The time spent on the feasibility study will be returned ten-fold when you select the right solution. And whether wireless picking is right for you now or later, you should make it a habit to reevaluate your pick process before every peak season. Simple changes can yield great results, reducing costs and time.

Debra Ellis is principal of Wilson & Ellis Consulting, an operations and logistics consulting firm in Barnardsville, NC. She can be reached at (828)626-3756 or dellis@wilsonellisconsulting.com.

‘Tis the Season

If your picking team does not perform effectively or if your operation is seasonal and experiences high turnover, wireless picking provides a viable alternative to continuous training. It creates an environment in which new pickers’ productivity and accuracy are similar to those of more established workers. This means that new employees can quickly achieve the productivity required to fulfill orders in peak seasons. This makes wireless picking an excellent choice for companies with extreme peaks in their order flow. They can quickly incorporate less-skilled pickers into their workforce, with realistic expectations of productivity and accuracy.

The key to successful implementation of a wireless system lies in choosing the solution that best matches your order dynamics and product mix. This can be tricky in an industry where individual item picking dominates the process. Case picking is rare, so it is critical to find a system that supports single-line groups and multiple-line batches and also recognizes product packing anomalies. Product lines can be diverse and include items that will be ordered together, but must be shipped separately. The software driving the pick process must provide the logic to manage these complex issues.

Another consideration in adopting wireless picking is the need to reengineer your picking and packing processes to maximize the technology’s benefits. Attempting to configure the new technology to match established processes can result in lost savings. It is essential to conduct an extensive analysis of the software’s pick methods and their feasibility to determine the most effective options and the best provider. Once you decide on the best methodology, you may also need to rearrange product position within the facility.— DE