Selecting the Right Order Picking System for Your Warehouse
When companies implement advanced picking technologies in their fulfillment centers, picked units per hour, worker productivity, order accuracy, and customer satisfaction rates rise. Panasonic’s Brett Whitaker explains the key benefits of voice picking and the related technologies helping firms achieve their fulfillment goals.
Order picking, the process of pulling items from inventory to fill customer orders, is one of the most labor-intensive activities in a warehouse or distribution center (DC). It’s also one of the most expensive. According to The Balance, the cost of order picking is about 55% of total operating expenses for the average warehouse. It also has a direct impact on customer satisfaction levels and can mean the difference between ensuring accurate, timely orders—or not.
“Order picking processes are one of the most important parts of a company’s entire supply chain because it is a make it or break it activity — leading directly to customer satisfaction,” Manufacturing.net points out. “If an order is mis-picked with the wrong SKU or quantity, or an SKU is out of stock, then customers don’t get their items and are not happy.”
With more of those customers placing a larger number of smaller orders, finding and retaining skilled labor is another issue that warehouse managers are grappling with. In an era of historically-low unemployment rates (3.7% nationally as of October 2018), this presents unique challenges for fulfillment operations that need to scale up quickly to meet e-commerce growth and manage seasonal order fluctuations.
Technology to the Rescue
The warehouse labor situation isn’t going to ease anytime soon. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs in logistics are estimated to grow by 26% between 2010 and 2020. “We’re in a tight candidate market, with unemployment hovering near a 15-year low,” Ajilon’s Tisha Danehl told Logistics Management. “The lack of suitable workers available is leading to an increase in demand for supply chain and logistics professionals that the industry simply can’t keep up with.”
As technology has evolved, so has the order picking technology that helps companies meet their order picking challenges. From voice picking and barcode scanning to “visual” warehouses—where operators use augmented reality (AR) to support the picking process—order-picking has become highly mobile and automated.
Voice: The New Standard
As the new standard for order picking, voice can be combined with a mobility platform that is deployed across the entire business from inventory management to order picking, packing, and shipping.
With voice picking, employees use headsets and microphones, plus a speech recognition system and a Warehouse Management System (WMS). Providing picking instructions via the headset, the WMS directs employees to pick items and then send voice confirmation of those picks back to the system. With advances in voice recognition, the systems are even able to accurately distinguish and understand multiple accents in workers.
Key benefits of voice include eliminating manual keying-in of data, no lengthy training timeframes (an important win in an era of high employee turnover), and ease of use for individuals. In most cases, companies report 10% to 25% productivity gains, and 99.9% order accuracy levels, when they switch from paper-based picking solutions.
Comparing voice picking to the systems used in a standard, manual warehouse operation, Brett Whitaker, national manager of Panasonic’s PreSales Engineering Department, says one of the main benefits of voice is increased operational efficiency. In fact, most organizations experience 20% to 30% gains in this area as soon as they implement voice.
Barcodes: Tried and True for Many
For some companies, barcode scanning reigns as the best order-picking solution. Combined with a WMS, barcode scanning helps employees “see” every item that has to be picked and those items that already have been picked. With this data right on their handheld scanners, workers can also efficiently navigate the warehouse or DC. Barcode scanning significantly reduces mis-picks and incorrect shipments, enhances productivity, and helps improve overall customer satisfaction.
Finding the Perfect Combination
Whitaker works directly with companies across all industries and says that selecting the best order picking solution starts with an assessment of your firm’s key fulfillment pain points. “No company is the same, ever,” says Whitaker, who recently worked with a food distributor whose warehouse is divided into three zones: freezer, refrigerator, and dry goods.
Currently experiencing high employee turnover, the company’s main challenge is training workers to discern among those three zones when picking goods. Employees also have to know when they’re being directed to pick a single item versus a single box of those items—a goal that voice alone can’t always adequately address. For example, recently one new employee was instructed to pick one product from Aisle Three, Bin 46, for he picked a single tea bag instead of a full box. “The whole order was picked, packed, and palletized,” says Whitaker, “and everything was correct, except for that single tea bag.”
That situation could have been avoided had the distributor combined its voice-picking technology with a handheld barcode scanner that also showed a picture on the screen, or a ring scanner, that would help employees do their jobs more accurately. Worn on the finger, for example, ring scanners allow workers to capture barcodes while leaving their hands free to do other work.
“The bottom line is companies want more checks and balances in place,” says Whitaker, “so that they can eliminate errors in the picking process.”
By combining voice picking with scanning, RFID (radio frequency identification) and/or screen-based support using a handheld or tablet, companies can leverage multi-modal systems that help them further increase order accuracy, worker efficiency, and overall customer satisfaction. “Right now, a lot of voice picking is still being done solely with voice technology,” Whitaker explains. “By adding other solutions to the mix, companies can increase the scope of what they do and how well they do it. At the end of the day, the combination only makes them better.”
“Right out of the gate, you’re going to start getting at least one-third more productivity out of your workers,” says Whitaker. Add screens, barcodes, RFID, and other advanced technologies to the equation and the benefits increase exponentially. “Once all of the pieces are in place, and once you understand how the system works and how to use it,” says Whitaker, “those gains will increase by 50% to 60%, mainly due to higher picking speeds and better order accuracy levels.”
More Integration Ahead
Looking ahead, Whitaker expects companies to look beyond their order fulfillment operations and focus on continued integration of those activities with manufacturing. This, in turn, will lead to a greater emphasis on improving demand planning and forecasting in an era where single orders are getting even smaller and faster.
After all, what good is an ultra-efficient fulfillment operation if the factory isn’t producing the right products, in the right quantities, and at the right time? “Going forward, we’re going to see more companies tying procurement into warehousing, sales, orders, and other activities,” says Whitaker, “all with an eye on covering the supply chain in one fell swoop—from factory to retail—and having really good visibility across the entire logistics operation.”
For more information on the Optimal Order Picking System for Your Warehouse and other Warehouse technology solutions, visit the Panasonic Mobility Knowledge Center.