A 2015 survey by Peerless Research found that 60% of all DCs are using paper for picking.* This is a remarkable statistic given that nearly two-thirds of all U.S. adults own a smartphone.** Think about it. Smartphones are ubiquitous in our personal lives, yet the majority of warehouses are still using pen and paper for picking. How is this possible?

Its worth noting that many of the respondents to the survey use more than one picking technology, so many of the DCs using paper also use RF, voice, pick to light, or some form of automation, as shown in the chart below. And the vast majority of those paper users also have a WMS (see the second chart, below), which almost universally support RF-based picking (and in many cases voice as well). So I think the more pertinent question is why are so many DCs still using paper if their WMS supports RF (and/or voice)?

Picking Technology vs Paper Picking

The truth for many DCs is that manual, paper-based picking is easier and more productive than RF. I’ve heard this from many operators. One very large, multi-site distributor we work with estimated they would lose 5-10% productivity moving from a paper-based process with their legacy WMS to an RF-based process driven by their new “best of breed” WMS. In evaluating various technology options, they found that the RF option provided by their WMS was “acceptable” for bulk picking and sub-optimal for case picking. More importantly, they determined that they would have suffered greatly using RF in piece picking. In their full analysis, they also concluded that pick-to-light would have been acceptable for piece picking, marginally acceptable for case picking, and inappropriate for bulk.

Warehouse Management System In Use Another important requirement for this company was that the technology they chose would have to address a variety of picking styles due to the wide range of automation systems and physical infrastructure in place across their DC network. In short, process flexibility was also key.

Rather than sacrificing productivity using RF, or falling back on paper and sacrificing accuracy, they installed a Lucas Work Execution System alongside the new WMS. The Lucas system provided flexibility to support a range of piece, case and bulk picking processes, and includes work management, real-time productivity tracking and other management tools, in addition to optimized processes across all picking types using voice-directed mobile applications. With the Work Execution System they achieved productivity gains ranging from 20-60% across more than a dozen DCs.

Many DCs do not evaluate their picking options beyond what is supported in their current WMS. Given those limited options – WMS-directed RF (or voice) or paper – the majority of DCs choose to use paper, at least for a portion of their picking needs.

So, to get back to the original question: why are so many DCs still using paper? I would argue that the prevalence of paper is a symptom of the shortcomings of WMS-directed processes and technology. That’s all the more reason DCs should consider installing discrete execution systems that can offer greater process flexibility and efficiency than their WMS. This is especially important if you are serving multiple delivery channels, a broad product assortment, and a mix of order types that require more agile picking processes.


*The picking and WMS figures are from a survey conducted in 2015 by Peerless Research. The results were reported in a webcast presented by Logistics Management Magazine.

**U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015, Pew Research Center, April 1, 2015. Read the full report here. 

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