Look at Processes First when Improving Your Warehouse

When looking to improve the efficiency of your warehouse, it’s always best focus on processes first before investing in new equipment and software. Otherwise you’re putting the cart before the horse.

First, you need to look at your operation with a fresh set of eyes. Look for areas with 1) excess travel, 2) unnecessary movements, and 3) constrictions or bottlenecks. Focus in particular on your picking and packing areas, as these are likely to have the most problems.

The next step is to look for ways to reduce travel time in your warehouse. For instance, put your fastest moving items in one place near the dock — or batch two or more orders together to cut down walking time.

Better yet, group all your one-line orders together, pick them in a single batch, and then pack them out at a special pack table (set up to print the packing list or invoice by scanning each item). Always look for ways to condense and organize your storage – remember, less walking equals faster picking.

Then you should consider grouping orders for efficiency. For example, group orders for a particular family or area of the warehouse together. Group similar sized orders together so that you can fit them on a multi-shelf cart as densely as possible. You may be able to create a batch pick list on paper without any fancy new software – the trick is to add the “put to” location on each line, and then simply sort all picks in walk sequence

After you’ve looked closely at your processes and implemented changes, you can consider new equipment and software to further enhance your operations. Equipment falls into several categories: powered vehicles, storage equipment, and order picking systems and technology. Here are some things to consider about each:

Powered vehicles — You may consider a pallet jack or man-up vehicle to speed up picking. Pallet jacks work well for heavy and bulky items. Man-up vehicles can help with selection of items where you may have used a ladder in the past, or where you had to drop a pallet to make the pick, and then put the pallet back. Man-up equipment can also help speed replenishment.

Storage equipment — Consider flow rack if you have space to deploy it. You might also use totes to compress storage of smaller items or even put very small items into compartments. And think about using shelving or modify your pallet rack into flow rack or shelving to create more dense storage.

Order picking technology — Systems exist to speed up order picking and fall into five major areas: 1) order batching only with paper, 2) RF scanner terminals, 3) pick to light, 4) voice terminals, and 5) automated storage and retrieval (AS/RS) equipment.

All have advantages. If you have a lot of fast-moving items and they are picked with few steps between picks, consider pick to light. Voice is a newer technology that improved rates over older RF scanner-based systems, and it works well when you take steps between your picks. If you are short of space, consider an AS/RS system, which can save space while improving labor efficiency. AS/RS sytems also reduce or eliminate walking, improving your pick rates.

Sam Flanders is president of Durham, NH-based Warehouse Management Consultants (www.2wmc.com).