Any warehousing operation where order picking is the primary function that does not use labour efficiently cannot expect to survive in a fast-changing business environment that demands same or next-day delivery fulfilled with 100% accuracy. Labour can account for 50% of picking costs, which could rise as the switch to multi-channel delivery formats, particularly internet-based home deliveries, reaches new heights while conventional sales through shops stagnate or decline.

charles-new-greyGiven that often around just 55% of an order picking worker’s time is actually spent in the order picking area it is critical to increase that percentage substantially. After all, the key essential for getting a grip on order picking costs is to measure pick rates against labour and fixed costs.

Automation can allow pickers to remain in their pick zones with little time wasted in unproductive walking. Typical examples like goods-to-picker systems include mini stackers, carousels and paternosters, allied to instructional aids like paperless pick-to-light and voice picking, which sharply reduce error rates and allow instant stock update for accurate inventories.

Order picking technology is also continuously evolving on the forklift scene. Still, for example, has just released its iGo neo CX20 autonomous order picker that follows its driver around in the aisles at a safe distance so that the driver can focus entirely on the picking function. Little time is wasted mounting, demounting and driving the truck. Tests have shown that this autonomous truck saves up to 30% of the time when compared with a traditional order picking truck. Its integrated tracking system makes this interactive teamwork of man and machine possible, in which lasers can recognise the operator and other people, racks, pallets, shelves or any obstacles.

Innovation continues apace with the now popular voice and pick-tolight systems developed over the last 20 years or so. Today, voice offers greater mobility and multi-modal functionality. It can be combined with a scanning or keyboard system so that users can easily toggle between voice and other systems to use the tool that fits best for each task. The latest voice developments also give additional flexibility by offering them as Cloud-based solutions. This means all the necessary infrastructure is provided offsite so users can have a scaleable subscription service that means companies don’t need to build or host on-site supporting technology infrastructure.

The advent of affordable UHF RFID is also opening up new horizons in stock control because it allows warehouse managers to reduce unsaleable items, raise stock accuracy and improve receiving efficiency and accuracy.

It is important to remember that no matter how slick one’s order picking hardware and software is it should be allied to other inventory control software like stock forecasting programs, especially those geared to react in real time to imminent events like sharp weather forecast changes. These can reduce total stocks by up to 30% without harming customer service levels and deliver an ROI in only two weeks.

There also should be a means in place of measuring the impact of stock-outs on potential customers who were prepared to buy because stock-outs are a bigger problem than returns caused by picking errors. This writer recently phoned in an order for a vacuum cleaner but was told it was out of stock for at least three weeks. My business went to another supplier the next day.

One can only wonder if the brave new world of business to consumer shopping, however, has made a rod for suppliers own backs regarding certain goods, like shoes and clothing. In their pursuit of trying to obey the first law of marketing, suppliers are routinely sending online/phoned orders for a particular item but in perhaps five different colours or styles so that the buyer can try them on at home and return the rejected ones. The cost of dealing with all these returns is appallingly high so should suppliers not stamp on that?

CHARLES SMITH

Feature Writer