As eCommerce booms around the globe, it has created an evolution in streamlined warehouse facilities and technologies. New methods of warehouse management and automation are ramping up the diversity of logistics operations and warehouse efficiency while revolutionizing order fulfillment processes.
The integration of improved warehouse management systems (WMS), autonomous warehouse components, and robotics in the eCommerce industries are giving businesses a better grip on managing their supply chains.
There is however still one common area where optimization is key: warehouse picking, which remains a crucial element of successful fulfillment operations.
In this article, we’ll take a look at how the picking process can be improved and the key role warehouse picking plays in fulfillment.
What is warehouse picking?
Warehouse picking is the taking of items from a fulfillment center or warehouse so that an order placed by a customer can be fulfilled. Warehouse picking is a crucial step in the order fulfillment process that needs labor-focused processes and high-tech equipment to deliver high order accuracy rates across each and every order that leaves the warehouse.
Why are warehouse picking systems important?
Using an appropriate warehouse picking system is crucial as it will increase order accuracy and the efficiency of picking operations, thereby ultimately boosting customer satisfaction.
The top 4 warehouse picking strategies
One of the most effective ways in which the supply chain can be optimized is by implementing improvements in warehouse picking. Depending on the size of the warehouse, the types and number of products in it, as well as total staff count, one picking strategy may be better suited than others.
Let’s look at some of the warehouse picking strategies most commonly used to understand which one may be best for your scenario.
1. Discrete picking
Discrete picking is the simplest warehouse picking strategy and is used when pickers work on a single order at a time as these are placed. One picker can handle orders across the facility and retrieves all SKUs for the order.
This method works best for small businesses with limited SKU counts and/or small storage facilities or warehouses. Although discrete picking involves a lot more movement than other picking methods, it is practical to use until the business reaches a size that warrants one of the other picking methods.
- Easy to train/learn
- Suitable for low order volumes with a high number of SKUs per order
- Low error rate
- Doesn’t scale well
- High travel times for pickers
2. Zone picking
Zone picking works similarly to zone defense in sports — a picker is assigned to a specific zone in the warehouse, and they only pick SKUs in that area.
This means that portions of orders that have items in different zones will be picked by different pickers, much like an assembly line works. Zone picking is suitable for warehouses that have to fulfill complex orders with many units or with a combination of simple and complex orders.
The warehouse should be organized in such a way that the model can work, i.e. slow-moving SKUs are kept in one zone and fast-moving items with high inventory turnover in a different zone.
- Pickers gain detailed knowledge in one picking/product area
- Orders only travel through zones containing SKUs for the order
- Minimizes travel time
- Requires additional conveyance to improve effectiveness
- Siloed picker knowledge can result in scheduling challenges
- Not flexible on minimum staffing
3. Batch picking
Batch picking is most suitable when many identical orders that use the same SKUs are fulfilled. This means a picker can remain in the same area, rather than having to travel long distances across a warehouse only to have to return to an area they were just in. Batch picking improves productivity as it reduces repeated steps, trips, and time.
- Good for orders with high similarity
- Reduces travel time
- Pairs well with voice/light picking solutions
- Ideal for orders with low SKU counts and/or a high number of small-sized items
- Low labor time per order
- Not flexible enough for hot orders
- Difficult to optimize without a WMS
- Needs extra touchpoints
- It may require a dedicated preparation area
- Not suitable for orders with high SKU volumes or large-sized items
4. Wave picking
Wave picking is a variation of batch or zone picking that’s most suitable for warehouses that have a huge number of SKUs. It is schedule-based which allows for improved planning, taking delivery times, labor, carrier pick-ups, and ship dates, into account, as well as each product’s physical location.
Orders are not assigned to pickers in the order they are placed but are all evaluated simultaneously to determine the optimal “wave” of orders that can be prioritized and grouped based on importance and time.
- Minimizes picker travel time
- Pickers become familiar with one area
- Separate sorting/picking provides additional checks for accuracy
- Reduces congestion on the warehouse floor
- Needs extra staging space to sort/consolidate
- Additional labor is required for the consolidation step
- Knowledge based on zone limits pickers from working in other zones
- Sorting requirements may extend lead times
Best practices for warehouse picking
Anyone running a warehouse should be looking for the best picking methods and understand how to optimize them. The best strategy will minimize picking times as it will make items picked frequently more accessible via a faster pick path.