How to Optimize your Warehouse Order Picking Strategy

Danielle Lobo

Did you know that 50% of total time consumed in order picking accounts for the travel time in a warehouse or distribution center? That means that 50% of the overall time it takes to pick an order, is spent walking a warehouse trying to find product. Businesses that already have warehouse order-picking processes in place, should always be looking for ways to further increase efficiency. Some business owners might think ‘Well, I got my employees picking one by one and we’ve never made a mistake!” Well, while order accuracy is a great thing, what about speed and efficiency? There are always ways to improve business processes, whether it’s organizing your warehouse differently, trying a new picking strategy or implementing automation tools. The right order-picking system will work wonders for your warehouse, increasing profitability if you use the information to your advantage.

What is Warehouse Order Picking?

Order Picking is the act of walking a warehouse to find and pick items contained in a sales order. For example, think of a game distributor selling puzzles to Walmart. Walmart is not buying just one puzzle; they are likely buying hundreds. Some of those puzzles might be for kids and others for adults. Depending on how the game distributor structures their warehouse, an employee will have to walk the aisles to find each puzzle (or box of puzzles) ordered by Walmart.

The processes, flow, speed etc. followed by the employee depends on the picking strategy adopted by the company. Growing distributors will have to change their processes as they grow and continue to find innovative ways to increase picking efficiency.

A small distributor with a small warehouse can simply remember where products live and can follow an individual/discrete picking strategy. A discrete picking strategy requires one employee to pick an entire order, one line at a time and while your accuracy rate is high, your efficiency is not.

Large distributors do not have this luxury. Proper systems and processes must be in place for their warehouse order picking strategy. For businesses with high order volumes, Batch/Consolidated picking works best to reduce travel time in the warehouse. Simply put, batch picking requires an employee to pick the same SKU for multiple orders, lessening travel time. In some industries such as cold food and beverage distribution, where warehouse employees must keep in mind information such as expiry dates and shelf life, this is where Zone Picking comes into play.

Zone picking restricts one employee to one zone ensuring the items are moving as quickly as possible. Wave picking is another great option if you don’t want to restrict employees to zones, but instead schedule orders to be picked at specific times to maximize the picking process.

Whatever picking strategy works best for your company, there are additional ways to optimize your warehouse such as barcode scanning, placement of products and reporting.

Barcode Scanning

If a sales order could range from 2 items to over 100 items, estimating order accuracy and speed is limited. It’s very unlikely that an employee will make a mistake on a 2-product order but when there are more products to pick than one can count on their fingers and toes, it becomes difficult to manage product locations and order accuracy. Implementing barcode scanning, reduces manual error and electronically tracks inventory ultimately reducing costs. Users rely on technology to confirm the right product gets picked and any errors are identified at the source.

Placement of Product

In order to lessen the time spent on picking, packing and shipping of a sales order, the right distribution software will be able to print your pick slips according to bin/shelf location meaning your employees will always take the most efficient route when searching for items. To take it one step further consider storing heavy items low and far away, light items up high, and delicate items close to shipping. This allows you to build the pallets as you pick the order further speeding up picking and packing times.

Automated Reports

To truly reach peak warehouse efficiency, it’s important to think about the future of your warehouse and the growth of the business. Automated reports can give you information about where every single product is, at any given time. Implementing a strong bin/shelf location strategy will also tell you where empty bin/shelves are allowing your team to consistently either be stocking items or pulling items for sales orders. This helps eliminate dead stock as the product is constantly moving.

Quick Recap:

Spending too much time picking orders can mean that your business is missing out on opportunities. There are multiple picking strategies you can choose from to help with order accuracy and speed:

  • Individual/Discrete picking
  • Batch/Consolidated picking
  • Zone Picking
  • Wave picking

Other ways to increase warehouse order picking efficiency:

  • Choose the right picking strategy for your business needs
  • Implement barcode scanning to eliminate error and increase order accuracy
  • Place products in the warehouse accordingly that helps speed-up the packing time
  • Implement a system that can generate informational reports for future business developments