By Kayla Tyree
Customer order fulfillment and order picking are fundamental aspects of many businesses’ operations. Bridging the gap between product availability and customer demand, order-picking refers to the process of gathering the required products from a distribution or warehouse center to complete a customer's order. The overarching goal of this task is to do it as accurately and efficiently as possible in order to ensure deliveries are made on time so as to maintain customer satisfaction. Typically, the process for order picking is as follows. First orders are received from customers via a variety of channels which can include online platforms, electronic data interchange (EDI), and phone calls. That order will then be prepared, and an efficient picking plan is made that contains information regarding which items need to be picked, their quantities, and their locations within the warehouse. Once gathered, products are packaged appropriately and securely, but they may be individually inspected first to ensure the right products have been chosen and remain up to a company’s standard. Finally, the proper invoices and documentation are added to the package, and it is handed off to the shipping department to make its final trip to the customer.
Importance of Order-Picking
Ensuring this process is done efficiently is essential as it can significantly impact the timeliness with which an order arrives to the customer. Minimizing the time needed to gather the items to fulfill an order can consequently bring about a decrease in processing times and an improvement in resource utilization. A streamlined order picking technique can often have a domino effect that extends toward inventory replenishment strategies. Order picking can also be very labor-intensive, so having methodical routines and systems can result in decreased labor costs. The following will help guide you through several of the most used types of order picking methods in addition to their primary advantages.
Single Order Picking
Single order picking involves picking and assembling products for customers on a one-by-one basis. This means that customer orders are fulfilled one at a time, which can often help reduce mistakes and improve order picking accuracy. This method can be especially useful if one wants to focus on quality assurance. That being said, it is often best suited for smaller businesses and warehouses due to its nature of being relatively time-consuming.
Batch Order Picking
Batch order picking, also known as multi-order picking, is a system in which multiple orders are completed at once. In this method, orders are first grouped into batches based on common items, similar destinations, or order priorities. Warehouse pickers will then gather all items assigned to a batch and bring them to be sorted and distributed to their individual respective orders for packaging. Since pickers are visiting a single location within the warehouse for each order batch, it can significantly reduce the time that is spent on picking. This system is especially popular with businesses that have many orders of the same item or a high volume of repeated orders.
Zone Order Picking
The zone order picking approach primarily involves dividing the warehouse into various zones that each have specific functions. Pickers are then assigned to singular zones, picking products only from that zone's area. Since pickers are focused solely on their respective zones, this method can often result in an increase in employee expertise regarding their individual areas. Often resulting in reduced picker travel time throughout the warehouse, this method can also help reduce bottlenecks and congestion. This system is most helpful for businesses with a high volume of orders.
Cluster Order Picking
Similar in some ways to the batch order picking method, cluster order picking is another system that allows pickers to complete multiple orders at once. Instead of focusing on one type of item at once, however, cluster order picking requires pickers to gather a variety of goods for multiple orders in one go. Often the easiest way for pickers to adhere to this system is by pushing a cart loaded with multiple containers from one warehouse area to another. Though it doesn’t save quite as much time as batch picking does, cluster order picking is still very time-efficient and can help warehouses reduce their picker travel times. Businesses that deal with a large range of different products may find this method especially useful.
Wave Order Picking
With wave order picking, the warehouse is split into various sections and each picker is assigned to a single designated area. Pickers then grab products in “waves”, wherein each wave represents a set of orders with common attributes that can include similar product types, order priorities, or delivery destinations. When a picking wave begins, all zones are picked from at the same time before being sorted and consolidated into their respective shipments. Since pickers do not need to wait for each individual zone to complete their respective parts of the order before moving on to the next zone, this method can help greatly reduce the time necessary to complete the picking process. This system might be especially beneficial for businesses with many differing item types or a high number of picks per order.
Choosing the Right Method
The method you choose for order fulfillment can make a world of difference when it comes to operational efficiency and customer satisfaction. There are many factors that one should consider before they make their final decision. First, it is important to understand your typical order profile. Do your orders contain a wide variety of products? Are your orders typically large or small? Working to identify trends and patterns between your orders can help you to find the best method to tailor to your needs. Additionally, think about how many pickers you have at your disposal, as the number of warehouse employees may determine which method you are capable of carrying out. You should also take the nature of your products into consideration such as if they are fragile, bulky, or perishable. Items that are fragile may need a system that requires a higher degree of quality control while perishable items will need to be handled quickly. Additionally, you need to think about how your chosen method fits into any preexisting warehouse inventory management systems. Finding a method that integrates smoothly into systems you already have in place can have a major impact on operational efficiency. Finally, and more obviously, you have to take cost into account. This includes labor costs, the cost to potentially change warehouse layouts, and the cost of technology advancements to accommodate your chosen method. According to an article on how effective order picking can improve warehouse functions, order picking accounts for roughly 60% of a warehouse's operational costs. Finding ways to improve picking speed, efficiency, and overall performance is crucial in order to maintain healthy profit margins.
Selecting the best warehouse picking method for your business is a highly strategic decision with the potential to impact your entire supply chain. Careful analysis and informed decision-making can help to ensure you select the picking system best suited for your business needs. Bearing in mind factors such as product characteristics, order profiles, labor availability, available technology, and customer satisfaction can help make this process far easier. Keep in mind there is no one-size-fits-all method, so you are free to tweak any picking system to fit your individual requirements. This decision is not simply about picking orders from shelves; it is about navigating the complexities of supply chain management and delivering a high degree of excellence to customers.
ASCI specializes in helping businesses like yours to address supply chain management challenges. Visit our website to learn more and to arrange for a free consultation.