More efficient Stock Picking

Fulfilling customer orders is all about getting the right items in the right quantities to the right customers in the fastest time. This requires efficient order fulfillment processes to receive goods into the warehouse, process sales orders, pick goods off the shelves, package, label, and then ship.

Selecting or picking stock from the shelves of a warehouse (and then packing and shipping), is an important, but often overlooked function in the order fulfillment process.

Picking has historically been a highly manual process, relying on reams of paperwork to instruct staff on the warehouse floor to pick and pack the correct goods. This makes picking not only error-prone but also the most costly part of the order fulfillment process – by some estimates consuming over half of the total warehouse operating costs.

That is why there has been a shift towards using new technology to manage the picking process. However, whilst delivering significant efficiencies and cost savings, the dedicated devices and software required can be expensive to buy and maintain.

One solution is to use a smart device, such as the iPad, paired with a scanning device, to replicate what the dedicated device can do, but at a lower cost.

The problems with manual stock picking

Stock picking is a four-stage process:

  • Orders are received, verified and then released for fulfillment;
  • Sales orders are placed into a schedule with each picker assigned a set of sales orders;
  • The pickers then move through the warehouse selecting the goods off the shelves. The codes on picked items are checked against a list and then placed into a trolley;
  • The picker then returns with the goods to a central area where the goods are packaged and then dispatched to retail centres or direct to customers.

Picking has historically been a highly manual process relying on paper lists and spread sheets to instruct staff on the warehouse floor to pick and pack the correct stock. If any goods are missing or damaged, the pickers must walk back to central workstations to check for alternative items or to re-order.

Once the order has been picked, items are manually checked off and the lists provided back to central clerical area so stock records can be updated and new orders placed.

This reliance on manual processes makes picking not only time-consuming but also error-prone. Picking the wrong items can lead to returns, credit notices and customer dissatisfaction – all of which can quickly erode profits.

The process is also hard to scale. You can only grow by employing more people, which is not only costly but also inefficient and may simply lead to bottlenecks as more and more pickers try to move around the warehouse.

The benefits of new technology in automating stock picking processes

New technology solutions – hand-held mobile computers integrated with wireless scanners linked by Wifi and Bluetooth to a central inventory management system – can overcome many of the problems of a manual picking process.

Each job is allocated to a person who picks each item – scanning the barcode and confirming the item and quantity. The finished job is packed for dispatch and the details passed back to the central accounting system for invoicing and re-ordering additional stock.

Picking is not only faster, errors are reduced as workers receive instant feedback as to whether the correct item has been picked. Fewer mistakes translate into less returned goods and fewer credit notes – and happier customers.

Not only is each job more efficient, new technology allows for increased flexibility in designing picking strategies that best suit individual businesses, especially those using larger warehouses.

Rather than just picking one order at a time, walking in a set sequence through the warehouse, different pickers can be assigned to different zones with each person picking a part of each order. Alternatively, multiple orders can be assigned to each worker in a single journey through the warehouse. Both strategies allow jobs to be completed faster as multiple workers can work on multiple orders on each walk through the warehouse.

As mobile technology allows information to be entered as the item is placed into the trolley, data can be sent directly to central ERP systems in real-time. This data is now available at the touch of a button to track inventory. This helps ensure that stock levels remain accurate and reduces the need for time-consuming stock takes (and also makes them much easier to conduct).

This new information can be used to review warehouse efficiencies, operations and employee performance. For example, the data can be used to identify the most efficient layout for the warehouse meaning less travel time to collect orders, increased pick rates, and reduced double checking.

Can I use a smart device to pick stock?

Technological solutions typically require expensive dedicated devices and proprietary software. Smart devices such as the iPad, paired with a scanning device, have the potential to replicate what the dedicated device can do, but at a lower cost to buy and, if necessary, replace.

As staff are familiar with smart devices, implementation is straightforward – and their intuitive nature means that training times are greatly reduced.

Another advantage is that there is no need to carry multiple devices. In fact, many businesses may be able to leverage existing smart devices already in use – retaining all the other features of the device.

Though possibly not as rugged as the dedicated devices, tablets and phones can be fitted with a protective cover. Though in the event of a breakage, iPads and iPhones are cheaper and easier to replace than having to order another dedicated device.

Summary

Picking is the most labour-intensive and costly component of the order fulfillment process. If your picking is inefficient you are limiting the potential success of your business. The use of modern picking technology can reduce errors and improve accuracy, cutting costs and increasing customer satisfaction.

Smart devices, such as the iPads and iPhones, offer the ability to replace expensive mobile computers. In partnership with a hand-held scanner, these devices are easier to use, cheaper to buy and operate, and come with additional functionality.

Acacia Consulting Services offer a barcode scanning system that is powerful, easy to use and low-cost to implement. All that is required is an iPad and a Bluetooth scanner to scan and pick the correct items to deliver to customers.

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