Improving Picking Operations in Your Ecommerce Fulfillment Center

Order picking is one of the most important functions in the ecommerce fulfillment center. The customer experience can be a good or bad one based on the accuracy and timeliness of the picking process. Changes and functionality can be a source of labor cost savings in many FCs.

Slotting, replenishment and location control form the backbone of fulfillment operations. If they are cared for, much of the rest of the operation will run effectively. As this blog points out, two objectives should be to minimize walking times and produce high accuracy levels. Studies of large centers have shown pickers may walk as much as 15 miles per day.

Assess your ecommerce fulfillment center operations and determine how and at what cost changes can be made to improve picking through process change, technology and automation.

Getting the Basics Right

Legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi excelled at winning football games because his teams mastered and executed the fundamentals of blocking, tackling and passing. Lombardi’s wisdom of getting the basics in place first should be applied to many fulfillment operations. A previous post outlines 19 steps to efficient ecommerce fulfillment.

Here are three basics in more detail:

Remove the obstacles to picking: Small ecommerce fulfillment centers often use an older OMS or CRM system for their fulfillment center functionality. But these systems may not have been designed with ecommerce picking in mind. How can you improve their functionality? Examples include eliminating any manual sorting of pick tickets or adding more effective pick route sorting.

The lighting in some areas of an FC is often marginal. In a leased facility ceiling lights may not be in the same work areas that prior tenants used. Make sure there is sufficient illumination and increase pick ticket font size, thus eliminating errors.

Accurate slotting, location control and inventory: Slotting and location control have a major impact on picking efficiency. Nothing slows down picker productivity more than a back order. These can occur when a product can’t be found because it’s in the wrong location or out of stock, or the system’s on-hand inventory is wrong.

Establish hot pick zones: One consideration should be the creation of a hot pick zone. They contain the top selling SKUs and are located in the most advantageous position to facilitate picking and transfer to packing. This will reduce the time and the labor expense for bestselling items. Many hot pick zones are dynamic and change based on sales of each SKU. By having fast-selling items close to packing, walk time is greatly reduced.

Take Picking to the Next Level

After you have the basics mastered, you’re ready to consider more advanced methods, technologies and automation to improve picking.

Consider incentives: As we said earlier, picking is one of your major labor costs in fulfillment. This should be an initial function to consider rewarding high performance of employees with incentive pay. Here are 7 considerations for establishing incentives.

Consider a technology investment: A major way to reduce walk time is to adopt picking methods and technology that reduce the travel time or keep the picker stationary

A pick-and-pass order picking process moves the order from location to location or zone to zone using carts or conveyors. The picker stays relatively stationary with the order moving to the pickers.

Pick to light is a light-directed technology which can be used in a variety of ways. It is a form of paperless picking, where a barcode on a tote is scanned and the LED light directs the picker to put the item in the tote. The picker confirms the pick and a conveyor moves the tote to the next pick-to-light station. The cost savings come from the picker remaining stationary and eliminating picker travel time.

Put-to-light systems, often called reverse pick-to-light, use LED light stations to direct pickers to the correct location to sort or put items.

Voice picking to improve accuracy and efficiency: Voice picking has many benefits. Typically, companies experience additional picked units per hour and lower costs; increased work pace; the ability to integrate other languages for non-English speakers; improved picking and data entry accuracy; and online data entry and data prep reduction. ere

Here are 9 considerations when looking at voice picking.

Picking modules and automation: Retrofitting an existing ecommerce fulfillment center or planning a new one?  Investing in pick modules and automation can boost performance and lead to positive ROI for your operation. Benefits of pick modules include increased efficiency and reduced travel time, lower costs per pick and more efficient use of space.

Robotics in fulfillment: If you’re planning to build or retrofit a large ecommerce fulfillment center in the next couple years, integrating robotics should be considered. We have seen a number of businesses over the past couple of years able to cost justify robotics by reducing picking costs. The early applications assist pickers by letting the robots move products around, while associates do order assembly, checking and packing.

All of these more advanced picking technologies and automation require a warehouse management system and establishing four foundational principles to bring these picking advances to fruition.

Becoming more efficient and accurate in picking will decrease your cost per order, improve the customer experience and reduce order fulfillment time.

Brian Barry is president of F. Curtis Barry & Company