Manual order picking and packing are among the most labor-intensive tasks in a distribution or fulfillment center. Associates are often required to use paper pick lists as they navigate aisles, searching for the correct item and quantity. At pack out, picked items must be consolidated, shipping cartons built, parcels labeled, paperwork or collateral added, and packages sealed.
In addition to the time required, both workflows are also prone to human error, with mis-picks and packing mistakes that can be costly to correct as well as potentially damage customer relationships.
Fortunately, there are a variety of semi-automated and fully-automated material handling solutions available — at a range of price points — that can help boost an existing labor force’s efficiency in both picking and packing processes.
Technologies That Support Faster, More Accurate Picking
Travel time from pick to pick, coupled with the search time spent looking for the required items on the racking or shelves, quickly exceeds the amount of time an associate spends actually picking products. To minimize search time, consider deploying technologies that indicate the pick location and required quantities, allowing a picker to work faster. These include:
Pick-to-Light. Consisting of devices mounted on the beams or shelves in front of each pick location, the modules illuminate when an associate scans a pick order, making it visually obvious where the required products are stored. The devices often include alpha-numeric displays that indicate the number of items needed. Upon completion of the pick, the associate presses a button to confirm the task, and the process repeats until all items needed for an order have been selected.
Voice-Directed Picking. These systems outfit an associate with a headset that allows them to hear and respond to pick instructions verbally. The wearer notifies the system upon arrival at a pick zone, then follows prompts to pick specific items and speaks a key word that confirms the completion of each pick. Because a paper pick list is no longer necessary, picking productivity increases.
Augmented Reality Smart Glasses. Another wearable, these devices integrate a scanner and display an indicator within the associate’s field of view that points to the location and quantity of an item required by an order. This removes unnecessary search time, allowing the wearer to focus solely on picking the items as indicated.
Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). Increasingly deployed in fulfillment operations, these self-navigating robots are smaller and lighter than automatic guided vehicles (AGVs). When applied to picking processes, AMRs can be utilized in one of two ways. They can be programmed to travel between workers who are stationed at specific inventory zones, collecting the picks in a tote and eliminating associate walk time. Or each AMR is followed by a picker as it travels throughout a pick path. When the AMR stops in front of required items, its integrated touchscreen display shows an image of the product and the required quantity.
Goods-to-Person Technologies. There are a number of different types of automated storage and retrieval solutions (ASRS) available in the market, including horizontal and vertical carousels, vertical lift modules (VLMs), cube-based storage, shuttles, mini-load ASRS, and pouch/pocket sorters. While the technologies differ in methodology and capital expenditure requirements, they all support goods-to-person applications by presenting products required of an order to an associate located at a specific workstation. Boosting both efficiency and accuracy, these technologies eliminate travel and search time completely.
Technologies That Increase Packing Efficiency
Many of the time-intensive tasks associated with packing picked items to fill customer orders are detail oriented and quality assurance driven. Packers must often consolidate picked items into a single order; determine which size parcel, shipping carton or envelope will best fit the items; erect and tape the shipping box; place the items inside the shipper; add dunnage to cushion and protect the products during transit; insert any paperwork (packing lists, collateral, magazines, special offers, literature associated with the product); apply a self-adhesive shipping label to the outside of the package; and seal the package closed. Automated alternatives include:
Light-Directed Put Walls. Similar to pick-to-light technology, put walls are a series of cubbies or shelf positions, each associated with a specific order. Equipped with light modules at each location, a scan of an item’s barcode triggers the associated order position device to illuminate and indicate the quantity of the item to be put there. When all items are consolidated into the order, the module indicates that it can be packed — a process that typically occurs on the other side of the put wall.
Automatic Order Sequencing. Leveraging warehouse management software, completed order totes can be sequenced to arrive at a packing workstation set up to handle a specific outbound carton size. Simultaneously, any paperwork or shipping labels are printed and presented to the associate. The worker simply places the contents of the tote into a shipping container with any required paperwork, seals the carton, and applies the label. This eliminates time spent searching for all the components associated with the package, raising packing efficiencies.
Automatic Case Erectors. These machines automatically take a stack of cut corrugate cartons and open them, fold the bottom flaps in, and seal the flaps closed. With automatic case erectors, associates no longer need to build a carton before filling it with the ordered goods.
On-Demand Packaging Cartons. These systems automatically scan the dimensions of the ordered products and determines the appropriate size corrugated carton. Working from a continuous feed of cardboard blanks, the machine then cuts, perforates, scores, forms the box around the shipment, and applies the label. In addition to eliminating packaging waste and the need for void fill, on-demand packaging frees up packaging employees to perform other value-added tasks.
Automatic Label Print-and-Apply Systems. Often installed in-line with outbound conveyor systems, these machines print-and-apply a shipping label to the corresponding order carton automatically. Associates only have to replenish the ink and label medium occasionally to keep the machine operating continuously.
Automatic Document Insertion. Also frequently installed in-line on outbound shipping conveyors, these machines automatically dispense catalogs, packing lists, special offers, instructions, coupons, or other collateral into a shipping container prior to it being sealed.
Automatic Case Sealers. These machines automatically fold the open top flaps of a shipping carton down and seal them with tape or glue, allowing packing employees to handle other assignments.
Depending on your operation’s picking and packing volumes and operational capacity, one or more of these automated solutions can be implemented to help increase efficiency in these areas. Looking for other ways to boost efficiency in your picking and packing workflows? Connect with us.
John Knudsen, Project Director, firstname.lastname@example.org
A 25-year veteran of the material handling industry, John has worn many hats – business modeling, process and system concepting, system design, project management and implementation, and operational improvement – and has settled in over the past year as the Lead Solutions Manager. Outside of the office, John loves to fish and hunt, and is into traveling and spending time with his family.