Order picking is one of the critical aspects of the operation of every warehouse and fulfillment center. If you read our blog, you frequently encounter the “picking and packing” term. Both these activities are strictly associated with preparing parcels before they are shipped to customers. In this article, we are going to take a closer look at order picking. What is this activity all about? And what role does it play in the supply chain? In a few moments, you will discover answers to these questions. We will also show you some of the major challenges that accompany us at work every day. Let’s go!
What is order picking?
In theory, order picking is one of the most straightforward parts of our job. In practice, things can easily get tricky, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In short, order picking is all about pulling a specific product (or products) from inventory in order to prepare a parcel. That’s why we frequently speak of “picking and packing”. First off, we take products directly from our warehouses and, secondly, pack them into parcels that are then shipped out to customers. It’s a vital part of the supply chain! If you examine a typical supply chain, you will discover that order picking happens right before the last-mile delivery.
And yes, it sounds easy, but believe us, when you run a warehouse that has 10,000 sq m of space, you have to keep everything organized and under constant control. In our sector, order mix-ups are inexcusable, and the process of order picking is prone to them.
Types of warehouse order picking
In general, we can say that there are three main types of order picking. These different forms of order picking depend on several questions:
- What products are stored in a given warehouse?
- How many entities store their products in one warehouse?
- What orders are processes in this particular warehouse or order fulfillment center?
Here, the warehouse or, to be more specific, the picking area is divided into zones, usually containing different types of products. In this setup, warehouse workers are usually assigned to their individual zones, and they are responsible only for the orders/parts of orders that come from their zone/section. Zone picking comes in handy when your store fulfills orders containing many different items.
For instance, let’s say you run a model shop. You have models, glues, paints, accessories, and several other types of products in your offer. To keep everything neat, you store various types of products in various sections of your warehouse. When a customer places an order, you have to gather these items (the model itself, paints, brushes, glues) from various zones of your warehouse. This is what zone picking is, in essence.
Now, imagine something just the opposite. Your online store deals with a large number of orders, but they usually have a small number of identical products. Let’s say you sell shoes, and you’ve just received ten orders for the same pair of shoes, only in different sizes. Obviously, you store them in one place. It would be reasonable to collect all these ten pairs at once, right? This is what batch picking is all about.
In batch picking, the warehouse worker is given multiple orders to pick in one round and take all these items to the packing station, where they are processed.
Wave picking is, in many ways, quite similar to batch picking. This strategy is based on picking multiple orders simultaneously. Here’s how it works:
- Your warehouse worker receives a consolidated list of items that need to be picked at the same time (so-called waves).
- They collect items from different parts of the warehouse
- They send them to the packing station
These waves frequently depend on agreed delivery times or destinations. For example, if you have twenty orders in your store with the express delivery option requested, you can create one wave that comprises all these express orders.
There are also other picking techniques/approaches, such as:
- Pallet picking: One or more pallets of items are picked and sent to the packing area. A pallet can consist of one large-sized product or a set of smaller products.
- Pick-and-pass: One order is passed down each zone until all the items that should be included in it
- Single order picking: It’s the most straightforward technique. In single order picking, you pick one order at a time.
Automated Picking Systems (Smart Picking)
Today, warehouses are filled with various systems and devices that facilitate and accelerate order picking. All these systems make up something called smart picking: A new, modern, automated approach to picking and packing. These systems consist of:
- Autonomous vehicles, robots, and drones (e.g., Amazon uses them to pick orders)
- Wearables (e.g., barcode scanners, headsets, head-up display devices)
This technique is based on hand barcode scanners and LEDs attached to shelves, racks, and sections in a warehouse. A warehouse worker scans the barcode that’s attached to a specific shipping carton. Depending on what products ought to be collected for this given order, the barcode scanner displays a specific color, let’s say orange. Now, all the worker must do is follow the orange LEDs and collect the products they indicate. This way, everything happens smoothly.
Voice picking is also frequently referred to as Voice-Directed Warehousing (VDW). The main advantage of voice picking is that it keeps the process hands free. Everything starts with a voice-picking device, typically a headset with a microphone. Based on information coming from the Warehouse Management System (or the ERP software), the worker gets voice instructions on picking tasks that should be performed. In other words, the voice picking device directs every worker to a specific section in the warehouse. Many of the VDW systems work two-ways so that workers can also send information and instructions back to the system.
MOBILE SCANNER PICKING
This solution is very similar to the pick-to-light one. However, here, warehouse workers are directed not by LEDs but by mobile barcode scanners. The mobile barcode scanner displays the list of products that ought to be picked for a specific order (as well as each item's location). Each product that's selected for a particular order is also scanned and ticked off a list.
Challenges in order picking
As you can see, although picking seems quick and easy, it’s not. Picking products from the storage area can be challenging, especially when you have a large warehousing space with hundreds of different types of products. The main challenge is to keep everything under control. That’s why use various order management and logistics solutions that help us in our everyday work.
For example, one of the crucial elements in our logistics and fulfillment operations is a reliable WMS system. We use the Logifact solution because it helps us manage sorting, picking, packing, and shipping products for our clients and works brilliantly even if you ship thousands of products a month.
Furthermore, if you want to master picking and packing, you have to deal with two significant threats:
- Inaccurate inventory records
- Missing product information
Both are deadly to your logistics operations. That’s why both our warehouses and all the products stored inside are perfectly labeled and organized. It’s the only way to ensure that there are no product mix-ups or delays.
And we must admit that this approach makes a case for itself! Our current perfect order ratio is at 99.92%. Not bad, right? :-)
Methods used in order picking
In this article, we showed you six different order picking methods. Perhaps, at this point, you’re wondering which method is most effective. There is no single answer to this question. It all depends on your company’s profile and stored products.
Large fulfillment centers, like Omnipack, utilize various methods and combine them based on current needs and situations. We are also backed up by a sophisticated WMS system and intelligent solutions that automate our work. Small online stores that handle logistics in-house usually go with single order picking because this technique is straightforward and quick. After all, it's difficult to make any mistakes when you're focused on just one order.
Today, we took you backstage and showed you the vital part of our everyday work. You now know how complicated order picking can be and why this part of our work is so critical regarding our clients' (and their customers', too!) satisfaction.
We showed you some of the advanced automated picking systems and various approaches to picking products. When products are picked, they are transferred to the packing area where they are packed and shipped. But that's a subject for an entirely different blog post. :-)
If you are interested in order fulfillment, or you’re thinking about logistics outsourcing, we are at your service. Omnipack provides logistics outsourcing for large and medium-sized online stores across Europe. Drop us a line, and find out more!