Compared with order picking hardware like racking systems, sortation conveyors, trucks and goods-to-man devices, software issues  have largely taken a secondary role but that is beginning to change as multi-channel buying forces the pace to use labour more efficiently through harnessing voice picking systems, pick-to-light and other software packages like stock/demand forecasting programs. The good news about this change is that the investment required is far less than automated handling hardware and so delivers far shorter payback and installation periods. A good stock/demand forecasting program, for example, can deliver a ROI in just two weeks by reducing inventory levels by up to 30% without harming customer service levels, and any large business serving online deliveries of highly time-sensitive goods like food and drinks should not be without one that can react in real time to, say, sharp changes in weather forecasts. It’s not much use having the slickest hardware and software order picking system in place if a sudden surge in demand caused by sharp weather changes and manic sales promotion days leaves stock shelves empty and thus lost potential sales. A heat wave can send demand for drinks soaring fourfold in a few days, leaving many taverns beer dry, a sorry sight indeed.

chazLabour may account for 50% of warehouse picking costs and recent trends see a move away from full pallet/carton load picking for store delivery to single item picking for channelling through a variety of delivery formats including direct home deliveries, click and collect points and small retail outlets. This will place more emphasis on the need to use picking labour more efficiently and the watchword is flexibility, which in turn is dependent on stock visibility and availability, not just in the warehouse but throughout the global supply chain. Alas, however, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit/KPMG international report some 49% of global manufacturing executives admit that their companies currently do not have visibility of their supply chain beyond their tier 1 suppliers. Visibility is probably the biggest challenge to their business and so there seems to be much room for improvement here.

If there is one certainty about order picking regimes it is that the future holds uncertainty. This is why it is important to have hardware that can be quickly and cheaply adjusted to meet future changes in demand patterns. This could include, for example, having racking uprights supplied with a slot pattern designed to accommodate flow storage shelves for live storage. Even forklifts can come to rescue if, say, there is a need for more space in  a warehouse to accommodate denser flow storage schemes occasioned by e-tailing demands for single SKUs. If a warehouse has been using conventional counterbalance trucks in typically 3.6mt wide aisles then a switch to articulated forklifts, which need only 1.6mt wide aisles, could free up the necessary space needed at relatively little cost.

If a warehouse has all the appropriate hardware in place to cope with volatile order picking patterns but uses a paper-based picking method then they should seriously consider replacing paper with pick-to-light or, better still, voice picking. Experience has shown that with a supportive staff people outperform automated systems. Voice picking is 20% faster than paper-based picking, much more accurate, and able to deliver a ROI of under one year. But they also do more than just tell the picker where to go and what to pick. Voice can warn pickers about size and weight of certain products, advise the use of protective clothing or ask them to check a detail carefully if handling chemicals or other hazardous substances. Moreover, voice can help managers allocate tasks more fairly.

Picking software can be a game changer in so many other ways. Soleil Foodservice, for example, managed to improve its existing Snapfulfil SaaS WMS following a move to larger premises this year, which was forced by changing business patterns. Instead of the previous system that specified each individual SKU had to have its own rules within the WMS, which dictated where it should be located, Snapfulfil reconfigured the software because in many cases the rules no longer corresponded to an SKU’s attributes, which meant that the location associated with any particular product was no longer optimal. Now the system incorporates workflow rules based on product attributes, modifiable in real-time, rather than specific SKUs. Significant benefits include cutting the time to receive, de-stuff and put away a load from three hours to one hour, and cutting a typical order pick from two hours to 30 minutes.