In any break bulk warehouse operation order picking costs often form the highest single cost item but while most businesses know what these costs are they are largely unaware of how much of that cost could be saved through various forms of automation, says Craig Rollason, head of sales and marketing at Knapp UK. In a fast-moving world where slick logistics is critical to customer satisfaction, such an insular attitude risks an entire business’s survival.

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The greatest pressure on order picking operations is coming from the way customers choose to shop and what online shoppers, in particular, expect by way of service levels. Online shopping is the only part of retail shopping that is growing fast and in its wake leaving great swathes of empty bricks and mortar shops. By and large, only those fulfilment businesses offering multi-channel solutions can expect to thrive but what are the likely returns from slick order picking solutions?

To cope with a key customer expectation, picking systems must be very accurate. Dave O’Reilly at Voxware believes the cost of returns from mispicks is anywhere between £7 and £25 but the true cost could be much worse because customer business could be irretrievably lost through sloppy picking. Online customers also expect next-day delivery.

Fortunately, two types of paperless picking offer extremely accurate and fast picking – voice and pick-to-light. Vocollect believes that voice picking can boost pick accuracy to 99.9%. It enables pickers to work hands-free and eyes-free to focus entirely on the item they need to select. It can also deliver benefits in administration processes by allowing speech to be converted to data so that the back office warehouse system is automatically updated to give real-time stock levels. The voice recogniser will even cope with pickers’ colds.

But accuracy apart, it is the speed of picking that is the ultimate goal and ease of use and multiple languages are key factors in achieving this, believes Swisslog. Knapp believes  that its voice-directed picking can improve order picking productivity by up to 35% over paper-based picking and over hand-held scanners by up to 15%. Returns on such investments, says Knapp, are usually under one year.

Any investment in such improved picking techniques, however, needs to be flexible to cope with future requirements spurred by business changes. A good example, here is Swisslog’s AutoStore for light goods solutions, well suited to multi-channel operations because it is highly efficient and adaptable. It copes with many different throughputs, achieving over 3,000 line picks per hour. This goods-to-man solution can be easily extended by adding robots and pick stations. This approach offers a third big advantage. Owing to robots placed on the top of the storage grid it can store and retrieve goods with minimum space requirements. The result is that compared with a conventional warehouse it can store up to 60% more goods. That has huge cost-saving implications when considering construction of a new warehouse. It is also safer and far more ergonomic.