The COVID-19 crisis has impacted businesses in unique ways and continues to do so. While some companies are seeing huge spikes in demand and working around the clock to fulfil their e-commerce orders, others have had to close temporarily, to accommodate social distancing directives.

Although the lockdown has not been eased, governments are beginning to consider how life might return to normality – with a ‘new normal’ that includes some level of social distancing. People have started moving in that direction and there seems to be a greater number of people moving around. More cars on the road, more people out and about and more talk of people returning to work. Fast food chains like McDonald’s are reportedly trialling branch re-opening and other retailers are consulting with experts, to identify how they can open their doors again safely for customers.

When the shops do re-open, there will be so much pent up demand for ‘retail therapy’ in some sectors that short term sales are likely to rocket. Levels of interest in visiting B&Q and Homebase now they have re-opened are good examples. And let’s hope that as people get back to work, consumer confidence will hopefully return.

Clearly, strong guidelines and management policies will be needed to ensure that everyone who will be working in a warehouse – whether they are processing single item e-commerce orders or traditional bulk deliveries – are safe and protected. Warehouse managers must minimise the risks of their people working on top of each other. Who knows, in the medium term future, there may even be new British standard announced to guarantee key worker safety from COVID-19.

When using a WMS (warehouse management system) to control activities in the distribution centre, keeping a safe distance between warehouse operatives becomes an easier thing to fix.  It does require the addition of extra stages within a process – in the marshalling area – but taking worker safety seriously is an essential part of good practice and reputation management.

How to implement safe ‘pick and pass’ processes in the warehouse

In most busy e-commerce warehouses, 80% of the fastest moving products are stored in 20% of locations. It is common practice to keep these ‘winners’ near to the most effective picking locations at the front of the warehouse, close to the outbound loading bay and packing locations. This makes it fast to pick but it means the majority of activity in the warehouse in concentrated into these areas – not good for social distancing. By spreading fast moving items all around the warehouse, with an equal number of the winners down each aisle for example, warehouses can very easily implement social distancing – spreading fast moving lines around the front face of the warehouse.

Using a warehouse management software technology like Indigo WMS, warehouses can further enhance this by introducing a ‘pick and pass’ process. Here each individual picks the stock in their own aisle before passing it onto someone else, so three people could be picking a single order but in different parts of the warehouse. The stock is then sent to a central consolidation area, where the pallets or e-commerce orders are combined.

Moving onto the final fulfilment and dispatching stages, ensuring that the right items go into each order can become slightly more challenging. When one person picks an order in full, it’s a single responsible person who gathers the stock and takes it to the relevant location for wrapping and dispatch. With pick and pass (or zone picking) using multiple pickers, more care is needed to ensure that when the goods are brought together, high order accuracy levels are maintained. In practice it means using an extra operative to focus on consolidating goods for the loading bay and just needs to be managed properly.

We very often talk about a WMS enabling companies to ‘do more with less’. Now as a result of Coronavirus and the need for social distancing, warehouse managers may need to adjust that thinking and accept that they may need to increase slightly the numbers of pickers working to be able to ensure safe working. In some instances, companies will have seen the numbers of orders being placed take a downturn, so they possibly have a bit of bandwidth to pick up the slack for now. For consistently busy warehouses, they will hopefully have already adjusted to this new way of working and employed additional people in their consolidation and picking areas to ensure safe working distances.

The current crisis has meant a big change for everyone and we will have to adapt to a new normal where warehouses might not be quite as efficient as they have been in the past – but they will be safe and secure places to work. Yes, companies might need to have a higher number of pickers because of social distancing, but the flip side of this will be a reduction to the order to dispatch time, which means happy customers everywhere.

Author: Eric Carter, Solutions Architect at Indigo Software

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