Necessity is the mother of invention, goes the adage, and that certainly is true of the fast-moving world of order picking, where changing consumer buying habits over recent years has shifted the balance away from more efficient batch picking to replenish shop orders to single item picking for direct home deliveries. Such a revolution, enabled by the Internet, emphasises even more the necessity to understand one’s order picking costs and enhance that function’s efficiency. Aside from inventory carrying costs, which can dwarf all other warehouse running costs combined, order picking can account for as much as half of a warehouse’s total operating costs. A key factor in this is the time each picker takes to pick an order so unproductive time sent walking between pick locations and mounting/dismounting order picking trucks is important. Next in importance is order picking accuracy, although arguably in certain cases the cost of returns, if they are many, is more burdensome.

Fortunately, while over recent decades new picking technologies like goods-to-man, pick-to-light and voice picking have dramatically improved picking efficiency, new innovations and technical improvements show no sign of abating. This is particularly so in the field of robotics and vison picking utilising virtual and augmented reality (VR & AR). A good example is Swisslog’s ItemPiq robot cell fitted with a new, multifunction gripper which combines suction and mechanical grippers that can take four different gripping positions. This means it can collect up to 20% more products than conventional, industrial robots reliant on typical suction grippers.

Wearing advanced smart glasses, employees in leading logistics providers like DHL and Amazon use AR to scene recognition during an order picking process. These glasses display where each picked item needs to be placed in a trolley, with the aim of allowing faster hands-free order picking and errorrate reductions. These technologies also allow Amazon to analyse its customers’ buying history to predict future purchase decisions and reposition its stock in the supply chain. VR and AR can also be used for delivery drivers, field engineers and training purposes

The costly problem of handling returns, or reverse logistics, must also be more vigorously addressed because these are more costly than single, returned mispicks. The situation has worsened because the marketing mindset of merchants supplying homes directly inevitably means far more returns. Again, MHE suppliers, thanks to their increasing innovations, are helping to keep such costs down by making returns easier to integrate, like Knapp’s Pick-it Easy work stations to allow operators to switch seamlessly between order fulfilment and returns handling. The quicker returned stock is made available for resale the more efficient will be the overall orderhandling function.

The key to efficient stock control is to achieve the fastest turnover rate possible, because warehouses put money to sleep. This may mean re-evaluating the stock profile to weed out the slow movers and concentrate more on fast movers. It is no secret that the meteoric rise of the grocery discounters like Lidl and Aldi owes much to their more limited SKUs, typically 1,600 compared with up to 40,000 for the UK’s big four grocers, nearly all of which are fast movers. This allows them to charge significantly lower prices and for most shoppers price is king.