Picking automation for better warehouse throughput

published on 09 June 2021

If a warehouse operation wants to trim costs, where should it start? A good place would be with order picking. 

According to Mckinsey, with proper operations analysis, warehouse companies can improve their cost profile with gains of up to 20% — and picking is a central source of labor cost. Additionally, there are other hidden costs associated with picking such as loss of customer satisfaction and brand reputation.

Automation improves the outcomes in all cases. Let’s find out how

Key reasons for picking automation

The fastest, most effective way to improve warehouse picking is through automation. The reasons are simple. Automation accelerates the process, conserves resources, and minimizes error.

Every warehouse order triggers a pick path. For large, complex facilities, these paths are increasingly difficult to optimize. When you add in options, such as kitting and order assembly, the complexity skyrockets.

Specialized software platforms can organize and automate the entire picking process. Starting with order placement, these platforms map the shortest pick path. Higher picking rates result in faster customer deliveries.

Automated picking combines IoT and Software

The Internet of things (IoT) enables physical devices and equipment to be sensed and controlled remotely across an existing network infrastructure. IoT networks capture data about objects and devices to be analyzed and managed by computer-based systems.

For warehouses, convenient applications use the data to quickly determine things like the best pick path for any given order. Data can be visualized which further improves warehouse operations since it’s much easier to identify choke points.

Here are some examples of IoT and software for warehouses

Wireless PTL (Pick-to-light devices) - Helps warehouse workers find items by using indicator lights. A simple URL call triggers color-coded inventory devices to light upon shelves, racks, and/or carts. Supports barcodes, QR-Codes, icons, and other data..

Pick to Voice. - Warehouse worker wears a Bluetooth headset that communicates and confirms picks with an operator (which can be automated too). Enables seamless, continuous pick paths.

Smart glasses / Augmented reality / Pick by vision  - Picking instructions and order location/info appear in visual displays on smart glasses. Pickers are free from carrying paper instructions or devices for improved, hands-free workflow.

Robotic Picking - Automated carts and equipment are directed to pick items or gather goods at strategic warehouse locations from human pickers. Robots improve throughput as they can work for many hours with no downtime. Hopstack's advanced algorithms can optimize a robot's path in real-time.

<i>Image credit: Voxware</i>
Image credit: Voxware

Key metrics for measuring picking efficiency

One might imagine, this level of connectivity opens up many opportunities to measure warehouse performance with greater detail and precision. Consider these metrics.

Travel distance - The shorter the pick path distance, the faster goods get delivered. Distances can be automatically measured with a high level of accuracy, and built-in programs reveal shorter routes.

Warehouse space use - IoT and software can help optimize warehouse layout. This occurs along with two variables: maximize inventory per square foot/meter and ideal inventory placement for shorter picking times.

Error rate - Error tracking enables managers to improve process accuracy. Automated picking can even see error rates approach 0%. This translates into fewer returns and improved customer satisfaction

Accident/injury rate - By shortening pick paths, workers don’t have to exert themselves as much. Hopstack's Digital Warehouse Platform's integration with smart wearables can even track worker vital signs to ensure employees aren’t exhausting themselves

Picking automation improves throughput and efficiency

What are the business benefits of automation? Here are some key factors.

Lower costs. - Automation optimizes the use of labor, equipment, and storage space. Management tasks are reduced as analysis and performance enhancement are automated. Order return costs shrink too (the cost of returns in the US is estimated at $550 billion per year).

Near real-time tracking. - Automation improves the handling of temperature and time-sensitive goods, such as perishables and pharmaceuticals. The accurate visibility into storage and delivery results in better margins.

Higher throughput - With efficient, automated picking, more items reach their destination per day.

Scaling and forecasting  - With improved space and resource use, warehouses can scale faster to meet demand spikes. With automatically collected data, managers make better predictions about inventory flow given seasonal or demand fluctuations.

Hopstack’s Digital Warehouse software offers a fully integrated plug-and-play platform for picking automation. It seamlessly integrates with Voodoo Robotics wireless pick-to-light (PTL), to reduce businesses' onboarding friction.

Businesses can have free access for a month to Hopstack's trial platform enabling them to try out PTL solutions before deploying in production.

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