Every distribution operation must assemble customer orders from their offered inventory — this process is at the very core of what distribution operations do. On average, order assembly labor (picking) accounts for the majority of the labor with a distributor’s distribution operation.
Any process improvements, technology enhancements or material handling equipment applications that can improve picking productivity, throughput or accuracy, are likely to provide the greatest efficiency impact.
First, consider the picking process within your facility. Picking labor increases exponentially as the unit of measure offered to your customers diminishes. Picking full pallets or unit loads is far less costly per piece compared to picking individual cases, or individual pieces from inside those cases.
No matter what unit of measure your customers desire, there are several levels of technology available to remove the paper hand cuffs of the conventional pick list.
The pick list is as old an approach to picking and order assembly as the customer invoice itself. In fact, the most rudimentary picking method is to pick from the paper pick list, which in some applications also serves as the customer invoice. Paper picking is very straightforward, but also not very productive.
In its simplest form, the picker uses a paper picking list that lists all the items, and the quantity for each item, needed to assemble the order. The first step in picking improvement is to arrange the items on the pick list in a sequence to minimize the total walking distance through the order assembly process. Beyond that, the paper pick list limits pick productivity.
The pick list needs to be carried, referenced and, to ensure orders are picked complete, marked as each order line is picked. This puts the pick list and the writing implement in the picker’s hands and reduces the picker’s productivity since a picker cannot pick items for an order while they are holding or marking a pick list. There are however several means by which the picker’s hands can be freed from the hand cuffs that a paper list can be.
The most common set up from a paper list is a radio frequency (RF) scan gun. These are portable handheld scanners with a small screen which directs the picker to the next location from which the picker will retrieve an item for their order and allow them to scan a location or item bar code to confirm the item has been picked, thus, increasing order accuracy. The RF gun can also allow for multiple orders to be more easily picked in one transit through the pick area by directing items for multiple orders into separate shipping cartons, totes, or even pallets, depending upon the form factor of the picked items.
There are some limitations to RF guns. They are not completely hands free. While they reduce the amount of ‘hands on’ handling, they do not eliminate it completely. They also require an RF network infrastructure (think industrial WiFi for your warehouse) and the software to drive the RF guns.
There are variations on the RF gun scanner to make them more hands-free. Some scanner applications are configured as wrist gauntlets or ring scanners, allowing for further increases to the picker’s productivity. The investment required should be compared to the labor savings expected to ensure the upgrade to RF gun picking is a wise one.
Beyond RF scanners, there are completely hand-free options. These include voice picking and pick to light applications. Voice picking directs the picker via voice prompts through a headset from pick location to pick location. The picker confirms the pick quantity and location through a voice response through their headset microphone and they are then directed to the next pick.
Voice picking functions through the same RF network as an RF scan gun and serves essentially the same purpose, but instead of directing the picker through a screen on a hand held device, directs the picker through voice prompts in what can be a completely hands free application.
Pick to light applications provide a light display at each pick location. Once a picker “signs on” to an order, at a work station or through a mobile device, the pick to light system will direct the picker to assemble the order through the light displays at each location, which both light up to direct a picker to that location and display the number of items or cases to be picked from the pick location.
A pick to light system requires a significant investment as, in a standard application; each pick location requires a light display. For an operation with 5,000 items this could mean 5,000 displays, which drives capital costs up significantly, potentially over $1.0 million. As with any application to increase productivity and accuracy, the capital investment must be weighed against the reduced operating costs to ensure the proper level of technology is applied to the picking operation.
Though not every operation is suited for all the possible productivity enhancements outlined above, there are too many options available to not seek to unlock the paper hand cuffs that might be limiting your operation’s productivity.
Bryan Jensen has 32 years of experience in retail and wholesale distribution, transportation and logistics and is a vice president and principal with St. Onge Co. in York, Pennsylvania. St. Onge Co., www.stonge.com, is a material handling and manufacturing consulting firm specializing in the planning, engineering and implementation of advanced material handling, information and control systems supporting logistics, manufacturing and distribution since 1983. Contact Bryan at 717/505-8016 or by e-mail at [email protected].