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Evaluating the Upsides and Downsides of Order Picking Methods in Fulfillment Warehouses

Categories: BCO/Shipper, Warehouse.

By all estimates, traveling within a distribution center – by foot or by machine – accounts for some 60% of a picker’s time. Obviously, finding ways to reduce the time pickers spend in motion will increase efficiency within a warehouse. However, figuring out which order picking method is best at improving efficiency is not a simple task, as it depends heavily on the number of SKUs of an order and the number of orders.

This comparison intends to evaluate which order picking method works best for a given situation.

  • Piece Picking involves a picker navigating through the warehouse route and manually extracting each item until the order is filled. Ideally, the SKUs will be listed in the same way on the picking form as they would appear on the route, to avoid having to double back in order to grab an overlooked item. The picking order also should be sequenced to get the picker as close to the starting point as possible.
  • Best Use: This method of order picking works well for a small number of orders that have a medium-to-large number of SKUs. It becomes inefficient when each order only has a few SKUs. The movements become inefficient.
  • Zone Picking operates much like an assembly line. A carton or tote moves along a conveyor line to a given point, where the SKUs are added. The carton or tote can then stop, continue, or be diverted, depending on which items are needed.
  • Best Use: Like any assembly line, this is fantastic for completing a large quantity of orders, but only if there are a relatively small number of SKUs. Too many SKUs will slow down the conveyer line, thus minimizing efficiency. Also, this is only effective in an organized warehouse with clearly marked and delineated zones.
  • Batch Picking is also known as multi-order picking. Rather than filling in a single carton or tote at a time, multiple orders are filled. This method requires organization, but can be very effective.
  • Best Use: Batch picking is great for operations that have medium-to-high volume orders with a small quantity of SKUs. Increasing the number of SKUs can lead to mix-ups. Also, a low volume of orders can be problematic since orders are intended to be filled in bulk. Too few orders would create a delay, which is troublesome for time-sensitive orders.
  • Wave Picking combines elements of all other picking methods. All SKUs are picked from a single zone and moved along in pick carts. Once all SKUs are collected, they are sorted into their respective orders.
  • Best Use: While this method sounds complicated (and can be during the sorting/consolidation process) it is efficient. This method is best for the combination of moderate-to-high volume of orders with a moderate-to-high number of SKUs.

Sometimes a combination of processes is necessary to make the most of order picking. The best practice is to pay close attention to the quantity and specifics of all orders, and then apply the system that provides the most productivity and accuracy in a given workday.

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