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A system for all seasons

12 December 2012

As the UK starts to move into recovery, efficiencies achieved within the picking process when times were harder will continue to pay dividends, says Zetes sales director Andrew Southgate Order picking - the manner by

As the UK starts to move into recovery, efficiencies achieved within the picking process when times were harder will continue to pay dividends, says Zetes sales director Andrew Southgate

Order picking - the manner by which goods are selected from a warehouse - is fundamental to good supply chain processes.Whether the picking function is for customer orders or for parts used within an assembly line or service operation, optimising the process properly brings very fast operational returns through lower costs and greater customer satisfaction levels.

In our experience working with different organisations, around half of the total costs associated with the warehouse function originate from the picking process and can be reduced significantly by employing the right mix of technology.

While picking optimisation has been on the agenda for most goods handling situations, the recession has heightened its importance as companies look to reduce costs. Although the fundamental picking strategies - pick by line or order for instance - have not changed, the business needs behind those strategies - the need to pick stock faster, more economically, accurately and safely - have definitely become heightened. And with this, attitudes towards the importance of technology to support the process have strengthened. Businesses have felt more vulnerable during the recession and sought ways to cut costs and optimise their workforces.

Now, as the UK starts to move into recovery, albeit very slowly, any efficiencies achieved within the picking process will continue to pay dividends. Depending on the product profile and picking strategy used, there is definitely a lot of interest currently in voice directed picking. This is because it delivers high productivity and accuracy, the return on investment is quick and it's a stable and proven technology. It's not that voice is fashionable per se, but the business case is very compelling. For instance, although methods such as barcode capture are still prevalent, depending on the numbers of situations where cases are being picked for a pallet, the returns achievable from voice are very high indeed.

Compare this with full pallet picks, where the benefits of voice compared with using hand held terminals are not so marked.

In recent years, as voice adoption rates have grown, less interest has been shown by companies in equivalently performing alternatives such as pick by light, which could be because they are less flexible to operate by comparison. Voice makes it more straightforward to re-organise pick faces frequently around the fastest moving lines, and optimise storage capacity by introducing dynamic binning which maximises space availability where this is at a premium.

In a highly specialised warehouse, where speed and productivity are critical, voice is really the best option. It is also relatively easy to integrate an existing WMS or other technologies and processes with voice such as automated conveyor systems, AGVs (automated guided vehicles) or automated racking/carousel systems to further optimise time available for operators at the pick face. Indeed, now, the latest voice software offers true "plug and play" functionality and there is no longer a requirement for the user to have an existing WMS. Instead it is possible to by-pass this with a web-based logistics execution system which supports the sending and receiving of voice commands.

One good example is Corporate Express, which implemented voice picking with conveyor systems and achieved large productivity gains. Each picker is allocated a zone in the warehouse covering specific product lines, which are picked into a pre-scanned tote. This then passes by conveyor from zone to zone during the picking process. The system works very well for large volume, small item picking - books, pharmaceutical, personal products - items, which naturally fit within a tote.

Coop Sweden provides a good example of using voice directed technology with AGVs, using voice to support warehouse pickers, in a DC where pallets were being transported using AGVs.

Pickers are no longer needed to steer their pallets or roll carriers to the next location, but can instead dedicate their time entirely to optimising the picking process, resulting in productivity improvements of up to 80%. Previously, average picking times per day were approximately 4 hours, whereas now, operators can be picking for over 7 hours - a very sizeable increase.

Finally, returning to the issue of integration with a WMS, when considering a new picking system, the user needs to understand whether they want a point solution to sit alongside their existing WMS or complete a full system review. For companies to take the former option of integration with an existing WMS, they need to have a good working relationship with their WMS provider and ensure their software supplier will agree to continue supporting it. If these pre-requisites are in place and provided the WMS can be extended, it's possible to implement a simple interface that will enable voice picking.

However, if the business strategy involves changing WMS provider at some point in the future, or if a number of different WMS solutions are supported within the organisation, the best option may be to identify a voice middleware specialist who can create a single interface to effectively sit alongside each WMS and send and receive the relevant information feeds to drive the voice directed picking processes.

When selecting an order picking system a number of criteria need to be considered including cost, complexity, flexibility, number, size and scale of customer orders and delivery frequency. Every situation is unique and a careful review of the processes and technologies available will ensure the best balance of efficiency, accuracy and cost can be achieved.