In any break bulk warehouse, order picking is usually the highest active cost element behind the passive cost of holding inventories. For those operators who do not adapt, however, to the changing face of retailing, a rude shock awaits them, bequeathed by inappropriate materials and information handling equipment and techniques that will no longer keep up with the demands of online shopping , by far the fastest growing sector in retailing.

“The changes in the way people shop today – and how they will increasingly shop in the future – is having a major effect on the way that modern day warehouses need to be designed, laid out and managed,” says Linde Materials Handling. “As more and more consumers choose to buy their products online rather than visiting the high street, warehouse managers are having to adapt their operations accordingly,” adds Linde.

The company has already seen an increase in mezzanine floors among it customers’ warehouses to allow them to engage in multi-level picking and they believe more sophisticated WMS will need to be introduced to help meet the need for individual items to be picked rather than picking whole pallets. This will also have an increasingly significant impact on the space within the warehouse because single unit picking requires more space than picking whole pallets for bulk orders. “If companies are not willing to invest in appropriate picking processes, they will soon see their ‘unit per hour’ productivity rates decrease significantly, as well as increased congestion in busy picking areas,” warns Linde.

If the need is to cope entirely with online order picking then the most efficient solution would be to build a warehouse designed just for that, a solution that Tesco is now implementing because the throughput volumes have reached critical mass. But for those operators who must provide multi-channel deliveries, i.e. direct to homes and retail stores, and do not have the luxury of a deep purse to adopt full automation for the picking, then their main route is warehouse adaption but they must keep it as flexible as possible.

An essential adaption requirement will be the need to free up space and here the operators have a choice of hardware to achieve that which does not, necessarily, involve costly, full automation. The simplest of moves would be to switch from wide to narrow or very narrow aisles through a change in forklifts from counterbalanced machines to articulated forklifts or dedicated VNA trucks like man up order pickers or combi trucks. Such a move would raise storage capacity by as much as 50%. Another move would be to reconsider the type of storage racking/shelving. Automated stacker cranes would replace the need for aisles altogether but they are costly to buy and usually need very high utilisation rates like 24/7 operation to give a reasonably quick return.

Warehouse operators do, however, have the option of a semi automated storage and retrieval route like shuttle technology that uses remote-controlled, battery-powered pallet handling vehicles that operate in pallet racking. For countries with lower labour costs, manual storage and picking solutions will have more appeal, like racking divided into lanes such as drive-in, push-back or live (flow) storage systems. Live storage specialist, BITO, says there has been a marked shift across Europe to order picking from live storage systems. Companies are installing banks of flow shelves for new or additional pick zones in free areas to gain faster picking and less manpower.

Once the space savings have been achieved by installing the appropriate hardware, there remains the critical choice of picking method. The oldest form of manual order picking based on paper pick lists would be inappropriate in a fast-moving scenario where productivity and pick accuracy are paramount, and so e-tailers are unlikely to use it. Barcode reading by laser scanners still has its place but newer technologies, like pick-to-light and hands-free voice technology are making steady inroads. Compared with paper-based picking, pick-to-light can easily double productivity and cut error rates by 90% or more. Voice technology is also accurate but, perhaps, more complex and problematic than pick-to-light. One pitfall to avoid is to make sure an industrial grade voice recognizer is chosen rather than a consumer graded.

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