Picking up the pace

Jul 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

Getting orders out the door faster is a primary goal of many catalog operations. Streamlining your order picking process can help you achieve that goal.

According to several industry consultants, 80%-90% of your warehouse employees’ workday is spent in transit between orders. So reducing your workers’ travel time between orders should boost productivity and customer service.

For instance, if your orders typically include multiple SKUs, many of which are commonly ordered together, your warehouse could benefit from zone picking. By arranging your warehouse so that products that are likely to be picked together are stored together in one zone, you enable workers to pick for multiple orders at a time, instead of single orders, and reduce their walk time in the process.

For Sparks, NV-based outdoor clothing and equipment cataloger Sierra Trading Post, a reorganization of warehouse space 18 months ago has paid big dividends. “We reduced the number of picking zones from four to three,” says Robin Jahnke, manager of fulfillment. “We found that our workers were walking less after we eliminated an entire picking zone, which resulted in a 16% productivity gain.”

Automation is another way to reduce walk time and improve picking efficiencies, says John Giangrande, systems sales manager for American Handling, a Cleveland-based firm specializing in materials handling. For example, a conveyor, which depending on the complexity of your operation could cost $25-$325 per linear foot (not including installation), can save significant walk time-and wear and tear on your workers.

Asheville, NC-based cataloger God’s World Publications, which sells books to schools and churches, uses a conveyor to distribute picked items to its main packing station, says director of operations Shane Marsh. The conveyor, along with a reorganization of picking zones, reduced pickers’ trips to and from the storage zones and the packing station. And-in part because pickers are now less fatigued-the pick error rate has dropped from 5% to 2%-3%, Marsh adds.

Many catalogers have taken warehouse automation a step further. S&S Worldwide, a business-to-business educational supplies cataloger in Colchester, CT, implemented barcoding and radio frequency (RF) four years ago. Previously, the mailer’s pick tickets were handwritten, which both slowed the process and increased errors.

“The limitations of a manual system became apparent as fill and accuracy rates suffered,” says vice president of operations Denise Delisle. “We didn’t know where the order was in the system or how to get it fulfilled to complete the order.” What’s more, now that orders are transmitted via RF to the pickers in their zones, the workers-who on some occasions had walked as much as 10 miles a day-no longer have to keep returning from the merchandise areas to the central station to retrieve their pick tickets.

Such technology isn’t cheap, however. Implementing barcoding and RF cost the cataloger more than $225,000, Delisle says, with the scanners alone costing $2,000-$2,500 each. But the investment has paid off. Before going high-tech, S&S picked at a rate of 40 lines, or individual items, an hour; its pick rate has since more than doubled, to 85 lines an hour.