The nature of order picking has changed significantly in recent years. Driven by a host of factors including the ever present desire to reduce inventories, the demand for just-in-time deliveries and, of course, the on-line shopping explosion, companies increasingly find that they are required to pick items more frequently and in smaller quantities per pick.
The changing profile of the typical order means that order picking has become a very cost intensive function particularly at those sites where manual systems are used and the need to improve picking efficiencies is, more than ever, one of the biggest challenges within the supply chain.
Factors such as the value of the goods being picked, how the product has to be handled, the frequency of the pick and the packaging and labelling requirements for onward distribution, operational shift patterns, the geographic location of the operation not to mention Health & Safety and manual handling legislation - all contribute to costs and must be considered when identifying the best methodologies for optimising the picking process.
Therefore, to give themselves the best possible chance of creating a cost-efficient picking process, it is essential that companies choose the right blend of order picking strategies and techniques regardless of whether the preferred solution is manual, automated, man-to-goods or goods-to-man.
Although each picking operation will have its own unique set of requirements, all aspects of the project must be considered from the outset. That includes the physical design characteristics of the building as well as the interface of the key materials handling equipment components within the system. Time should also be spent producing a detailed analysis of the typical SKU profile.
As the range of SKUs held by suppliers and retailers continues to expand, in many cases warehouses and distribution centres need to operate a multi disciplined approach to storage and picking operations. Products may be handled as full pallet loads, pallet layers, boxes, cartons inners or even down to individual items and this can represent a significant operational challenge.
In addition to the above, the ratio of order picking to bulk stock movement within the store should be closely scrutinised and a breakdown of the type and nature of the products stored produced.
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all panacea to designing an order picking system and if the optimum order picking layout and material flow throughout the warehouse or distribution centre is to be achieved it is necessary to take a holistic approach to a project and consider all the variables in detail.
In the initial phases of a design, key areas to be considered include:
The type and nature of the storage system - from block stacking through pallet racking, shelving to small parts storage etc;
The general material flow and picking strategies - such as batch picking, wave picking, order consolidation etc;
Packing, kitting, marshalling and preparation for dispatch
All of these must be seen as part of the overall material flow around the system and its subsystems if the operation is to be truly efficient.
The type of materials handling equipment used within the order picking system has to be robust, productive and designed to offer high degrees of operator comfort if optimum picking rates are to be achieved.
For example, if goods to man principals are adopted, then the operators workstation must be ergonomically designed and take account of picking rates as well as the nature of the source and target picking and dispatch mediums, including packaging as well as the integration of PCs, printers and IT support equipment.
The man/machine interface
The demands of modern logistics operations are increasing the pressure on both man and machine and this is particularly true where man-to-goods systems utilise forklifts and order picking trucks.
Of course, speed of throughput is a pre-requisite, but so too are high levels of accuracy and safety. This means that man and machine must work as one - utilising technology as appropriate - to achieve the optimum partnership and, therefore, results.
Not surprisingly, the demands made of the modern forklift operator are growing all the time. Todays operators not only have to negotiate their way around the warehouse, check pick lists, scan items etc, but they must do so in a safe and productive manner.
Any technology that removes some of the pressure on the forklift operator by making his or her day to day operational procedures more straightforward can only bring efficiency, productivity and safety benefits and many of the technological developments in the fork truck market are driven by these aims.
For example, early in 2009 Jungheinrich launched a new automated pallet scanning and identification solution that is an integral part of the forklift truck and brings considerable time and efficiency advantages to the supply chain.
The new fork-based scanning process not only results in significant time savings compared with manual scanning, but reduces the forklift drivers workload and ensures low picking error rates. The system won the recent United Kingdom Warehousing Associoation (UKWA) award for Innovation in the warehousing industry.
This year Jungheinrich also launched two new order pickers that are equipped with state-of-the-art RFID technology that enables a warehouse management system to automatically guide the forklift to the right location in the right aisle at all times. Tests have shown that this feature can potentially boost productivity within the warehouse by some 25 per cent.
When it comes to the safety of the truck operator and order picking staff working at ground level, Personnel Protection Systems (PPS) are increasingly used throughout mainland Europe and with so many warehouse operators striving to demonstrate that they embrace best practice when it comes to the safety of the workforce, we are seeing increased take up of such systems in the UK.
Utilised in areas, mainly VNA applications, where there is potential interaction between personnel and forklift traffic, these systems, integrated into the design of the truck, automatically detect people or obstructions in the path of the vehicle. Depending on the nature of the obstacle detected the truck will automatically slow down or stop preventing damage to products, trucks or most importantly injury to personnel.
In summary, for any logistics operation to be considered efficient it is crucial that the order picking function is well planned. A poorly designed or executed picking system will see overheads spiral while the cost of dealing with goods returned as a result of inaccurate picking can be crippling.
Consider all the key variables including material flow - and use technology appropriately. When drawing up a shortlist of equipment suppliers do take into account the whole life cost of the equipment not simply the initial capital value of the kit. Choose products that minimise ongoing operational costs and offer long-term efficiencies.
And remember, whatever planning tools or software are used in the design of order picking system it is essential that all aspects of the project are considered from the outset and that the materials handling equipment supplier has a good relationship with the main contractor. In my experience, the chances of the system being implemented on time and within budget are dramatically diminished if the latter point is not the case.