Despite warehouse technology advances, such as pick-to-voice systems, the low-level order picking process is still noticeably inefficient. It can take as many as nine discrete actions from when an operator places one case on a pallet to when they place the next case on the pallet. It remains one of the most resource-intensive processes in the warehouse and thus a major target for automation.
Steps in the Typical Low-Level Order Picking Process
- Pick up case
- Place on pallet
- Walk to front of truck
- Step on truck
- Drive truck
- Step off truck
- Walk to case
- Pick up case
- Place on pallet
While order picking does not lend itself easily to automation, opportunities do exist to cost effectively use automation to streamline the picking process. Four of the nine actions in the process are associated with moving the forklift down the aisle to the next pick location. This continual repositioning of the forklift is time consuming, increases the physical demands on operators and can create safety issues.
In addition to requiring the operator to get in and out of the forklift for each move, this approach causes operators to pick in a U-shaped pattern in which they are circumnavigating the truck multiple times as they work back and forth across the aisle, and consequently further increasing pick times.
The process would be more efficient if the truck could move without the operator having to repeatedly climb on and off. This would compress the nine actions into just five, while minimising the distance operators have to travel and reducing the physical demands of the job.
One proven way to accomplish this goal is to give the operator remote control of forklift position by adopting the same strategy that has already proven to be effective at increasing pick productivity: wearable technology. In addition to a pick-to-voice headset, operators can be equipped with a wireless device that advances a modified forklift without the operator ever touching the vehicle.
This would allow operators to work from behind the forklift, moving back and forth across the aisle in an efficient Z-shaped pattern. They would no longer have to interrupt their picking to climb on and off forklifts and can position trucks in the exact position they want them, with sensors helping enhance product and rack safety.
The technology, when supported by other process improvements, can cut an additional five seconds per pick off the process. How valuable is five seconds per pick? If you assume a typical operator does about 100 picks/hour, a five-second reduction cuts the average pick time from 36 seconds to 31 seconds, enabling an additional 13 picks per hour per operator with less physical effort. That 13 percent productivity improvement can minimise unproductive foot travel, reduce warehouse costs and avert the need to expand existing facilities or build new ones.
This technology, like voice-enabled picking, delivers the greatest benefits when it is combined with other process optimisations. Establishing one-way traffic flows, maintaining open aisles, and adopting Z-shaped picking are among several other optimisations that should be considered in collaboration with an experienced material handling partner.
Automation is sometimes presented as an all or nothing proposition. The reality is there are degrees of automation. For many warehouses, automated solutions, such as forklifts controlled by wearable technology, represent a viable path to significant productivity improvements with a smaller capital investment and faster return on the investment.