First, Think Simple

By James M. Apple, Jr.

Somewhere along the line we became convinced that the only way to get the lowest possible picking cost was to pick very large batches of product to satisfy the needs of a large number of orders, and then sort them using a high-speed tilt-tray or cross-belt sorter.

Fortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth. And, I say fortunately because only a very few distribution operations have the high volumes that justify such a high level of mechanization.

So, what can you do to get world class productivity in orderpicking without breaking the bank? Here are 3 simple things to consider. I hope that you are already doing one, or more.

1. Segregate single line orders

One of the most common statistics for warehousing operations is the average lines per order. This is particularly troubling when the number is low, say 2-5 lines. In this case, what we really want to know is; what % of the orders are single line orders? And, what is the average number of lines for the multi-line orders? Single line orders can generally be picked in large batches, and do not need to be sorted, or consolidated with other lines for the same order. In fact, they might be easily picked directly into a shipping carton, or envelope, eliminating the packing function altogether.

In a parcel shipping environment, single line case orders can often be batched to permit pulling a full pallet and simply applying shipping labels to the cases.

Once single line orders have been handled in the most efficient process, we can turn our attention to the multi-line orders.

2. Look for family groups

Sometimes we are fortunate enough to pick an entire order without travelling far on the pick path. How can we make it more than luck?

Consider how the customers place their orders, or how we prompt them to place their orders. In a distribution center for fragrances, products had been nicely slotted by activity level, and a zone picking system routed an order from zone to zone to collect its various picks. It turned-out, however that all orders resulted from an order sheet for the variety of products related to a single fragrance. Simply slotting all the products of each fragrance in a single bay of carton flow rack would have produced a pick path of 8 for all of the orders in the facility.

3. Pick the little stuff first

Generally, if we begin picking all portions of an order at the same time, the larger, full-case products arrive at the dock first because the broken case picking is labor intensive, and slower. Consequently, shipping dock staging areas tend to be large, and often confusing.

At a D.C. for a medium sized discount retailer, they were so proud of their highly productive case picking line, that inevitably, full cases were always waiting for the small picks. They contemplated an expanded buffer loop all the way around the warehouse to hold the waiting cases.

How much better it would be to pre-pick the small products and stage the few totes in a flow rack. When all broken case picking is complete, then is the time to show-off the speed and responsiveness of the case pick line and let the totes lead the cases straight into the truck with no buffer at all!

Interestingly, all of these can be done in facilities with little, or no mechanization  and, also in D.C.s that have already implemented some level of mechanization.

Do I sound like a Luddite on an anti-automation crusade? I hope not. Some of the very best fulfillment systems that I’ve seen, and, some that I’ve designed incorporate high-speed sortation. However, they must be justified by comparison with the very best of the simple processes.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.


James M. Apple, Jr. is a Director in The Progress Group. Prior to co-founding The Progress Group in 1991, he was a Partner with Coopers & Lybrand’s SysteCon division. During 1992-1995 he served as a Senior Systems Advisor with Vanderlande Industries, a major conveyor and systems provider in Europe.

Jim is an internationally recognized thought leader in the area of facility design and integrated distribution systems. His contributions to the improvement of distribution practices have been recognized by his receipt of the prestigious Reed-Apple Award, which is given for lifetime contributions to the advancement of the material handling profession. Jim has also received the Institute of Industrial Engineers’ Facilities Planning and Design Award. He has written numerous articles and handbook chapters on warehousing and logistics operations and is a popular speaker on logistics seminar and conference programs.

Prior to SysteCon, Jim worked as an Industrial Engineer with IBM, was Supervisor of Facilities Planning for the Oldsmobile Division of General Motors and was Executive Vice President for an automotive aftermarket parts supplier. He holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Industrial and Systems Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Source: The Progress Group

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