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Warehouse Picking Strategies

Supplier: RF Barcode Systems By: Timothy Muir
24 February, 2010

When we meet with warehouse managers, the most common request we receive is for RF scanners. In this article, we'd like to discuss some alternative approaches used by companies to streamline their picking process.

When we meet with warehouse managers, typically the warehouse uses paper pickslips. In 100% of meetings we attend, the manager is aware of scanner picking and how it works, but in most cases, they are only aware of one picking strategy. Only a handful of managers are aware of voice-directed picking, and even then there are a lot of misconceptions about how the technology is deployed.
In this post, I will discuss several picking strategies and technologies which can be used to improve productivity and accuracy.
Technology: Pick by Paper
This is the simplest approach to picking and is where most warehouses start out. The pick list is usually sorted by bin location and pickers tick off each item from the order as the go. Usually there is a second auditing step to verify that the picker has indeed picked the correct items. Finally, the accounting software is updated with any discrepancies and an invoice is printed.
Technology: Pick by Scanner
Pick by scanner relies on a wireless network being present in the warehouse. Users sign on to a mobile barcode scanner and read instructions from the screen. Pick by scanner provides increased accuracy, because pickers can scan the barcode on the product to verify that they have picked the correct item. Information is sent to and from the WMS system in real time.  Scanner picking typically allows the checking step to be reduced or eliminated because items are checked in real time.
Technology: Pick by Voice
Voice picking, like scanner picking, is a wireless, real-time pick method. Instead of reading a screen, the picker receives the pick location (and other instructions) over a headset, and confirms their pick by speaking a check-digit. Pick by voice provides improved accuracy AND improved performance. With voice picking, pickers don't need to stop and key in data to a scanner, or pick up and put down the scanner in between each item. Typically the picking time is decreased by between 15 and 25%.
Picking Strategy: Order at a Time
In this common strategy, one person picks one order using either paper, scanner or voice. Since this is so common, I won't go into too much depth, except to say that it is not your only option!
Picking Strategy: Pick by Label
If the items you are shipping can be packed individually, or you are shipping multiples of a carton, pick to label may be a good choice. In this strategy, a courier label (e.g. for Toll, Startrack or TNT) is applied directly to the carton as it is picked. Typically there is no need to consolidate individual cartons for the order, because this step is performed by the courier.
Picking Strategy: Fragment/Zone Picking
If your warehouse is broken into distinct areas, for example - dry, chiller and freezer, it might be practical to allow an order to be split among several pickers. Each picker works on their section of the order and the sections of the order are consolidated at the despatch area. The same strategy can be used without zone picking, to split large orders into several tasks, with each fragment picked by a different person.
Picking Strategy: Batch Picking
In some warehouses, hundreds of small orders might be picked each day. Batch picking allows one picker to pick multiple orders in a single pass through the warehouse, reducing walking distance and improving throughput.
Picking Strategy: Put to Order (Pick by product)
The put-to-order strategy brings a bulk lot of goods forward to fill several orders. The picker starts by identifying which product they are picking and is told which order needs this stock item, and how many items are required. This strategy is well suited to retail replenishment picking.
Picking Strategy: Cross Docking
Cross docking allows inwards goods to be transferred immediately to an outbound pallet without needing to be put away then picked in two separate steps.