chaz3Order picking costs remain a black hole for many businesses, especially those that have grown rapidly. The exceptions tend to be companies that have had a large operation for a reasonable period. But even those businesses that have a good idea of their picking costs are unaware of how much could be saved through automation and improved ergonomics, says Craig Rollason, head of sales and marketing at Knapp UK.

Getting a grip on order picking costs means getting to grips with ergonomics, believes Knapp. “There are certain operations that are simply not economic to automate fully,” explains Mr Rollason, “but introducing semi-automatic processes and improving the ergonomics of those operations can make a significant difference to the unit picking cost, as well as reducing staff costs through improved working conditions and thereby lower staff turnover.”

The key cost measure at a basic level is the pick rate against labour and fixed costs, says Chris Adams, of Interroll. These should be broken down against fast, medium and slow movers to ascertain maximum payback on alterative solutions.

Best results, however, can only be achieved by  incorporating versatility when choosing order picking systems in 2009, says Edward Hutchison, MD of BITO Storage Systems. “Shelving and racking solutions that allow a variety of pallet, bin and container configurations will play a key role in providing customers with flexible solutions that can keep pace with changes and growth in their business.”

Those changes, mainly home/internet shopping, have hugely impacted suppliers who now have split case picking when previous supply to shops meant full case or pallet pick. The variety of picked items is also increasing all the time as manufacturers develop wider product ranges.

No investment in an order picking solution should be undertaken in isolation. Warehouse operators must realise that success in one area depends on success in another. Receiving and storage methods, for example, have a big impact on downstream functions such as sorting, packing and shipping. The order workload and material flow must be balanced with other areas of the warehouse and its effect on order consolidation and marshalling considered. If the workload cannot be balanced over picking zones, then delays and bottlenecks could result. More complex settings, therefore, many require some form of dynamic routing system that can spread the work evenly and here is where a good warehouse simulation program could help for checking any proposed solution.

For those companies that have embraced some degree of automation there is still room for improvement, says Knapp’s Mr Rollason. Switching to voice-directed picking (VDP) for example, can raise picking performance over paper picking by up to 35% and over hand-held scanner operations by up to 15%. Knapp’s own VDP software, Ki-soft VOICE, allows operators to use several different languages simultaneously, so clients can integrate non-mother-tongue workers seamlessly into the workflow. There is also a green advantage to VDP as there is no need for high speed printers and paper pick lists. Other key benefits  are highly efficient picking operations, precise inventory control and accurate lot identification.

There is no doubt that voice recognition picking is making inroads into the barcode reading domain, as it is quicker to install, more hands free, lower cost, more flexible and provides a lower cost pick rate. It will probably grow in tandem with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which are far better than paper barcodes for many reasons. They are less prone to handling damage, like smudging, which makes them unreadable, a particular problem with airline baggage handling. They can also hold far more information and active tags can respond to interrogation during transit, so allowing information updates. Tracked items do not need to be oriented to be read nor require a direct line of sight. In short they do not need human intervention to scan items and can be used in far more hostile conditions.

With advantages like these, it was thought a few years ago that Walmart could save over $8 billion a year, mainly through lower labour costs from not having to scan manually incoming barcoded goods. Other huge savings could be expected from fewer stock-outs and products lost to theft or supply chain foul ups.

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