In a period of constrained consumer spending, order picking costs move to centre stage because picking errors involving product returns are very costly to handle and risk loss of custom. These errors are more likely to occur in manually run warehouses based on paper pick lists and while most warehouse operators have a reasonable idea of their picking costs they are unaware of how much could be saved through automation and improved ergonomics, believes Craig Rollason of Knapp UK. “Our experience shows that companies with largely manual warehouse operations have a good idea of comparative costs of other types and makes of manual handling equipment but few have found the time or had the right contacts to investigate automated handling costs,” he says. It may sound hard to swallow but “the shoe leather savings alone are enormous,” he adds.

The really big savings from semi or fully automated picking, however, derive from the far greater picking accuracy over paper picking lists, followed by ergonomic gains, the latter being a key factor in uncovering the true costs of order picking, says Knapp.

Improved ergonomics that include goods-to-man work stations, pick-to-light and put-to-light control systems dramatically improve ergonomics, ensuring maximum productivity through cuts in unnecessary stress and fatigue. Working at optimally designed ergonomic work stations, staff are less likely to become ill and more likely to have better morale, and so employers will have less trouble and costs dealing with high staff turnover.

Companies that have already embraced some measure of automation can still improve operations by switching to voice-directed picking. This is quicker to install than barcode reading applications, more hands free, has lower investment cost and cost pick rate and is more flexible, claims Interroll. Knapp believes that such a switch shows an increased picking performance over paper picking and hand-held scanners of up to 35% and 15% respectively. The software can also allow clients to use several different languages simultaneously, allowing integration of non-mother tongue workers seamlessly into the workflow. Voice-directed picking also has a green dividend in that it dispenses with high speed printers and paper pick lists.

In recessionary times it is more difficult to justify capital investment in any kind of automation, not because the payback is uncertain in normal times but simply because future demand is uncertain and for any automated handling to work cost effectively it must have a certain minimum, steady throughput. But with signs of an economic pick up it would be foolish to ignore semi automation for too long because, as Knapp claims, the returns from voice-directed picking are usually under one year. Those who invest in the economic upswing will have a significant competitive advantage over those left struggling with paper-based picking.

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