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Forward Pick Lines: Sometimes Smaller is Better

Forward Pick Lines: Sometimes Smaller is Better

While few things in life are certain, some are fairly consistent. In the wholesale suppliers’ world, the demand for orders with less than a case quantity grows with each passing year. Servicing the “just in time” and replacement part needs of their customer base drives significant cost into a wholesaler’s bottom line.

Order fulfillment, which once was the domain of manufacturers with lead times measured in weeks or months rather than days or hours, is one of the key facets of a good distributor’s offerings to its customers. Over that same time span, the average order quantities dropped as well – from pallets to cases to individual units.

Customers order more frequently and in smaller quantities, effectively pushing inventory back upstream within the overall supply chain and putting much of the burden for inventory holding capacity and rapid small order fulfillment onto distributors. For most distributors in today’s environment, it is safe to say the slower and more costly their order fulfillment process is, the faster that customers will seek alternate sources of supply.

For operations with less than case order fulfillment, picking at a piece level accounts for an average of 60% of all labor within a distribution center’s operation. It is the most expensive part of the order fulfillment process, surpassing receiving, storage and non-specialized packing combined. Given the large amount of a fulfillment center’s labor effort and budget devoted to picking, time spent optimizing the productivity and throughput capacity in this area probably will yield the greatest return for the effort and capital invested. While there are many methods, technologies and equipment offerings that a distributor can pursue to keep their small parts order fulfillment costs down, picking productivity up, and accuracy levels at an acceptable level, an approach that brings cost, throughput and cycle time efficiencies whenever it is appropriately applied is utilizing a forward pick line.

A forward pick line for small case or less than case picked product positions smaller portions of the inventory for those items in a condensed area. This could be a pallet of each item to be picked, case flow shelving containing several cases of each item to be picked, or bin shelves with as little as one case from which product might be picked. This creates a smaller travel distance when assembling an order, or a portion of an order, requiring small case or less than case quantities.

Less travel distance in the picking process translates into more orders picked and shipped per hour, increasing the productivity and throughput, and decreasing the order cycle time. Of course, while utilizing a forward pick has the advantages mentioned above, there are several considerations that should not be overlooked when setting up a forward pick line strategy in your distribution operation.

While the purpose of the forward pick line is to reduce the distance pickers travel to assemble an order, be sure to allocate enough space and pick locations in the area used for the forward pick line. Setting up the pick line at the ground level within a pallet racked area ensures there are enough slots (be they pallet slots, case flow lanes or bin shelf positions) to accommodate all the items on the forward pick line while allowing for an additional 10% to 15% available positions. This will allow for the addition of new items to the pick line as they are added to your selection or expansion for items that experience a greater demand than expected to multiple pick faces in order to avoid running out of items during an active pick cycle.

Evaluate how much of each item is picked on a daily and weekly basis. This should drive the size of the pick faces in which you slot each of those items. While there is no hard and fast rule, a slot size that runs out of product in less than a day is too small. That will cause multiple replenishments in a day (movements from reserve stock to the forward pick location) and reduce the productivity gains both for your replenishment staff making more trips than necessary, and your picker, who may lose productivity waiting for a replenishment or returning to the same pick location later in the day after a needed replenishment has been completed.

A forward pick line can reduce pick labor in a facility by more than 25% after allowing for the additional labor to support pick line replenishment. While it can increase productivity and throughput, and decrease order cycle time, take care to allow for an appropriate number of pick slots of the appropriate size within your forward pick line. This ensures your operation can avoid the pitfalls that can cripple a poorly planned forward pick line and take full advantage of the forward pick lines benefits.

Bryan Jensen has 31 years of experience in retail and wholesale distribution, transportation and logistics and is a vice president and principal with St. Onge Co., York, Pa., assisting clients in increasing their picking productivity among other logistics engineering needs. St. Onge Co. 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. For more information go to Contact Bryan at 717/840-8181 or at [email protected].

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