Creating a more productive and efficient order fulfillment strategy has become an increasingly important focus as distributors face same-day or next-day shipping demands. Secondly, the current labor shortages and hiring challenges warehouses are facing is only further increasing the need to improve order picking productivity.

To help, we’ve put together this guide that walks through three proven strategies distributors have taken to maximize productivity, efficiency and throughput in their DCs. (A healthcare distributor, Baptist Health South Florida, saw a 100% productivity improvement following these strategies). 

Download Now: Three Steps a More Productive Distribution Center [Free eBook]

The strategies mentioned below have also helped distributors achieve greater than 99.99% accuracy rates. To read more about increasing accuracy in your DC, read our our recent blog, “How to Improve Order Picking Accuracy in Your Warehouse”.

There’s an entire ebook written on this topic (listed above), but for the purpose of this article we are going to quickly take you through three strategies compiled from warehouse experts at Lucas to help you improve order picking productivity and efficiency.

As you’re reading through this guide, feel free to open up our value calculator in another browser to help you estimate your ROI and savings from each of the three strategies listed below.

1) Save Time at the Pick Face by Voice-Enabling an Existing Process

Voice-enablement substitutes voice direction and speech recognition for visual displays, scans and key entry in a WMS-directed RF process.

Productivity gains from voice result from eliminating the time spent stopping to read device screens, pausing to handle a scanner, or slowing down to key-enter data or press function keys.

Combine voice, scanning and visual displays to further increase order picking productivity

Warehouses and DCs can also combine voice, scanning and displays in a multi-modal process which allows associates to use the best tool at every step in a process – for example, allowing order pickers to scan barcodes when that is more efficient or accurate than voice or key entry.

In general, voice-enablement focuses on improving accuracy and efficiency at the pick face, with little change in travel time or other aspects of the workflow. Typical picking productivity gains are in the single digits.

What are the estimated productivity gains?

Voice-enabling an RF application will save 1-3 seconds per pick versus a typical RF workflow. In a simple picking scenario with a current pick rate of 100 lines/hour, a two-second time saving per pick would improve the pick rate to 105.8/hr., a 5.8 percent productivity gain.

» To calculate your savings and ROI you may receive from voice-enablement, you can use our value calculator here. «

2) Eliminate Wasted Time with Workflow Improvements

To eke out additional order picking productivity, DCs should look for ways to change and optimize their workflow to eliminate wasted time and unproductive steps.

Condense or combine process steps

In addition to substituting voice for RF (or paper) and leaving the process unchanged, you can condense or combine process steps or change other aspects of the process flow, streamline exception processes (which are extraordinarily time-consuming), and reduce the time pickers spend doing tasks ancillary to the main workflow.

For example, you can shave seconds from every pick by combining multiple voice prompts (“go to location ABC,” and “pick X”) and user confirmations into a single step. 

Start the associates next assignment where the previous assignment ended

Next, to reduce travel time between assignments, you can allow pickers to start their next assignment where their previous assignment ends, rather than walking back to a starting bench.

Streamline pre- and post-pick steps

Similarly, most DCs have opportunities to streamline pre-pick set-up time, post-pick staging tasks, and to reduce time spent handling exceptions (stock outs, wrong item in slot, etc.). Building in these workflow changes can eliminate wasted minutes from every work assignment.

It’s important to note that companies using voice as part of a a warehouse optimization solution can implement these types of workflow improvements without making any changes to their warehouse management system (WMS), slotting, or other material handling systems.

What are the estimated productivity gains?

Dialogue and task optimizations compound the benefits of eyes and hands free activities, shaving extra seconds from every pick, with additional minutes saved in exception handling, reduced travel, and in pre- or post-assignment steps. With the same pre-voice pick rate of 100 lines/hour, a four-second time saving per pick would net a productivity boost of 12.5 percent. A three-minute savings in set up or post-pick time (assuming one assignment per hour) could add an additional 5 percent productivity boost beyond that.

» To calculate your savings and ROI you may receive from workflow improvements, you can use our value calculator here. «

3) Maximize Productivity by Optimizing Your Processes

To get really dramatic levels of efficiency, DCs can reengineer and optimize their processes with warehouse optimization solutions.

This could take the form of introducing dual-pallet picking instead of picking a single pallet at a time, or, if you are already picking multiple orders in a batch, batching work assignments differently to optimize pick density and reduce travel, or moving to a zone picking process.

Examples of process optimizations

There are a variety of ways distributors have optimized their processes. Below we’ve listed the most popular and typical strategies we recommend to boost productivity.

For DCs with a large number of slow-moving items and low pick density, we may suggest a two-stage pick process in which slow moving items are picked in a batch and merged with other orders. This process improves pick density, reduces travel and increases productivity. Learn more about two stage picking →
For DCs that have installed high velocity pick modules for their fastest-moving products (products are typically packed densely in flow racks with a conveyor running in front of the shelves). Order picking bucket brigades are a way of organizing workers and orchestrating work in a warehouse pick module. The bucket brigade process balances workflow and distributes work evenly amongst the pickers, maximizing productivity and throughput. Learn more about bucket brigades →
For DCs that employ post-pick QC/Audit to ensure out-the-door accuracy, Lucas may suggest changes in how you prioritize and conduct audits to improve the effectiveness of audits while simultaneously reducing audit costs. Learn more about parameter-based auditing →
For DCs picking larger orders by zone, it is typically more efficient to consolidate the items for the order after picking across all zones (pick and merge). Follow the leader staging can be used to consolidate orders without requiring any changes to your host system or warehouse management system. Learn more about follow the leader staging →
Rather than evaluating picking and other processes in isolation, our team will consider ways to combine and/or interleave multiple tasks in a single workflow to increase overall efficiency. For example, we may suggest allowing pickers to replenish empty pick slots, or eliminating a post-pick serial number capture step in pack-out by including serial number capture at the point of pick.
Rather than following a simple first-in-first-out batching method, Jennifer™ uses mathematical models to create optimized batches of pick lines and assigns them to pickers on-demand, as they request work. In contrast to typical WMS batching rules, the Lucas models weigh a variety of factors, including:

  1. Order priority
  2. Product locations
  3. Product dimensions
  4. Starting and ending points
  5. Potential travel path
  6. User permissions

Learn more about AI-based batch picking→

Warehouse optimization solutions can apply multiple algorithms to determine an optimized path for the user to take through the warehouse to complete their work. The algorithms consider aisle directions (one-way aisles, for example), base item designations, and other factors to determine the most efficient pick path.

Batch picking and other operations that use carts and other mobile equipment may need to consider changing their cart configurations to enable optimized batches. Creation of optimal batch sizes significantly eliminates travel time, increasing productivity.

Please note, these process optimizations are not a one size fits all. If you’d like to learn which strategies you should use, please contact us to schedule an operational analysis

Add a data capture step to track item level data

DCs that need to capture and track item level data prior to shipping (lot, serial, etc.) may want to add a data capture step (either by voice or scanning barcodes) within their picking in order to eliminate or streamline downstream data capture processes.

Like process optimization, these transformative changes can typically be made without changing back-end systems using a warehouse optimization solution.

What are the estimated productivity gains?

Process optimization can result in high double-digit productivity gains, depending on a number of factors.

  1. In our 100 pick per hour scenario, moving from single-order picking to picking two orders at a time would effectively double the pick density (i.e., the number of picks per aisle, or area), cutting travel time per pick anywhere from one-quarter to one-half. (Even if you were to cut travel distance in half, net travel time would be reduced by less than that as the order pickers would be making more frequent stops and starts along the way.)
  2. Doubling the pick density and optimizing the pick workflow should generate a minimum 10 second time savings per pick for a net 38 percent order picking productivity gain, not to mention the potential time savings from streamlining other tasks. Frankly, this is a fairly conservative estimate. We’ve seen up to 122% productivity gains after implementing a voice-directed warehouse optimization solution.

» To calculate your savings and ROI you may receive from process optimization, you can use our value calculator here. «

Next, we will look at two different scenarios (Case Pick to Pallet and Piece Pick to Cart) to help estimate the productivity impact of each of the three strategies.

Calculate Potential Productivity Gains in Case Picking and Piece Picking

The following two examples illustrate how the different approaches to using voice can translate into distinctly different levels of benefit in simplified case- and piece-pick scenarios.

Example One: Case Pick To Pallet

The table below illustrates the impact of the different implementation approaches in a hypothetical DC with an average RF pick rate of 100 cases per hour. To keep things simple, we are assuming there is a single case picked per line and that workers are picking a single order at a time to a single pallet.

  1. In this scenario, voice-enabling an RF application would save 1-2 seconds per pick versus a typical RF workflow by eliminating scanning and screens (column 2).
  2. Dialogue and workflow improvements (column 3) compound the benefits of eyes and hands free activities, shaving additional seconds from every pick. Additional minutes per day can be saved in exception handling, reduced travel, and in pre- or post-task steps. The table, below, only includes in-task workflow improvements.
  3. In the Process Optimization column (column 4), we are assuming the DC is moving from picking cases to a single pallet to picking to two pallets at a time. This effectively doubles the pick density (i.e., the number of picks per picking assignment), cutting travel time per pick anywhere from one-quarter to one-half.
  4. Doubling the pick density and optimizing the pick workflow would conservatively save eight seconds per pick for a net 29 percent productivity gain (not to mention the potential time savings from streamlining other tasks).

Example Two: Piece Pick to Cart

Our second scenario is based on a piece-picking process in which multiple customer orders are picked as a batch to a cart. In this example, we assume an RF pick rate of 200 lines per hour.

  1. Similar to the previous example, voice-enabling an RF application would save 1-2 seconds per pick, but given the higher number of picks per hour (and less travel per pick), the magnitude of a one-second per pick savings is far greater than in our case-pick example.
  2. Likewise, there are larger opportunities for workflow improvements in a batch picking scenario, such as combining picks for multiple orders in a single transaction (pick and deal).
  3. Adding to the productivity gains, it is possible to improve pick density and reduce travel without changing the number of orders in a batch. For example, by batching orders that include items in the same aisles and bays can eliminate so-called “empty” travel. 
  4. Likewise, applying pick-path optimization logic can reduce travel 20 percent or more overall, driving the total productivity savings to greater than 50 percent.

How to Determine Which Strategy Is Right for You

As illustrated in these two simplified examples, it is fairly easy to identify and quantify the time saving from voice-enabling screens and scans in an existing RF process.

It is also straightforward to project the productivity benefits of streamlining or improving an existing workflow. It is a bit more challenging to project the potential gains from process optimization as that requires a clear picture of what an optimal process will look like in your DC.

Estimate potential order picking productivity gains by conducting an operations assessment

A good way to get started in developing a vision for that end-state, and for projecting the potential efficiency benefits of new picking methods, is to conduct an operations assessment.

Similar to a lean assessment as part of a six-sigma process, you will need to document how and why you are doing things today to identify specific time-saving opportunities in your existing process.

Beyond the possibilities for process optimization, the assessment exercise will typically suggest new ways to better achieve your business and operational goals – it forces you to think beyond “this is how we do things” to “this is why we do things.”

Lucas Offers an Operations Assessment Service to Help Identify Process Improvement Opportunities

To help DCs conceptualize their own optimal process – and to begin to estimate your end-state productivity gains – Lucas offers an operations assessment service. The purpose of the assessment is to identify specific process improvement opportunities in your facility.

Many of the process improvement ideas that come out of the assessment will involve the application of new technologies (voice, scanning and device displays, etc.) in a new user workflow, along with other optimization technologies (such as batch algorithms and pick-path optimization engines). In some cases, process improvements can be implemented with no change in picking technology, but voice and other new technology (RFID, pick to light, etc.) may compound the benefits of any process changes.

This exercise takes some time, but it is time well spent. The assessment allows you to consider how new optimization technologies and workflow solutions can impact productivity beyond the efficiency gains of voice at the pick face. Taking this approach can translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual labor cost savings.