A Beginner’s Guide to Order Picking Technologies

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The shop floor can be a stressful and at times overwhelming environment for an individual to step into straight out of college.  I know this fact all too well.  My career began in an engineering leadership program for a large company that focused on developing shop floor leaders…one of those programs where they try to shell-shock you by rotating your role every 6 months while setting lofty goals during each of your short tenures.  Wasn’t it the Beach Boys that said “I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger?” Or was it The Beatles?  Either way, the lyric couldn’t be more true.

Without much training, you’re thrown to the wolves and told to hit your metrics.  It’s fine right?  You can just ask one of the other engineers for help and everything will be okay.  What’s that?  Everyone’s too busy with their own pile of problems to help you?  No need to worry, grab a pen and take some notes. Time to impress upper management with four order picking technologies you should know when beginning a career in the supply chain.

Order Accuracy – Term to Know

I remember one of my biggest challenges was finding the proper balance between holding operators accountable for their work while not having to breathe down their neck to do so.  In that same breath, paper based picking is a nightmare to manage.  It’s the absolute worst.  You hand someone a piece of paper with multiple orders, varying quantities of products to pick and inventory locations to visit, assume there’s enough inventory at these locations to pick, then have a process to handle a situation where there’s not…clearly there’s a lot that can go wrong.  Wouldn’t it be nice if there were systems out there that can both reduce the amount of time spent monitoring it while also increasing picking accuracy, throughput, and inventory cycle counts?  Options such as pick-to-light, pick-to-voice, and RF mobile devices are cost-effective alternatives to outdated paper based picking.

#1 Pick-to-Light

Picking ergonomicsPick-to-Light technology finds its sweet spot in systems with low- to mid-range SKU counts (100-1,000) where a relatively high level of throughput is desired.  There are multiple options for the actual devices themselves, but typically each device will have a digital display used to display pick quantities and a pick confirm button.  The setup for what we can call the base module for a PTL system will have some sort of conveyor running parallel to multiple-leveled flow rack bays for a distance of 100’-200’.

As an order enters an operator’s zone, the order barcode is scanned and like magic, the PTL devices at the pick locations for that order illuminate and display to the operator the quantity of each product to pick.  After the pick is made, the operator hits the pick confirm button and inventory at that location is automatically updated.  How simple is that?

#2 Pick-to-Voice

warehouse pickingVoice-directed picking has its own set of advantages and is unique in that it can seamlessly adapt to your facility’s current inventory layout.  With this technology, pickers are equipped with headsets that guide operators through their pick path via audio commands, while operators confirm their actions through speech.  Without the need to read picking information off a sheet of paper, the operator is less distracted and has both hands free for the picking process.

This type of technology has proven to be extremely beneficial in cold storage environments or scenarios where operators are moving product that is large enough to require both hands.  In addition, since order information is fed straight to the pick-to-voice hardware, operators can initiate their next work order remotely via voice command.

#3 RF Mobile Device

RF mobile picking is very similar to pick to voice in how it operates with a few minor differences.  Here, operators are each equipped with an RF mobile device, usually with scanning or barcode capture capabilities.  Powered by configurable software, these devices will direct your operator through receiving, picking, packing, shipping, as well as other processes throughout the product’s lifecycle in your facility.

Bastian’s mobile product, Exacta Mobile, is configurable and completely customizable to meet your company’s requirements.  In addition, since the application is web-based, it can run on any mobile platform that can access the internet.  You’re not looking to spend upwards of $1,500 on brand new RF devices?  No problem.  Our platform allows you to make use of much cheaper hardware options, such as refurbished smart phones or tablets.

#4 Augmented Reality Picking

Welcome to the future.  We are capable of replacing pick-to-light, pick-to-voice, and RF scanners using an operator with smart glasses. The headset places visual graphics on top of the operator’s physical environment. In real time, the operator can walk the floor and be given directions on pick locations, how much to pick, and where to deliver the order once completed. While this technology is still being tested to ensure a completed solution, augmented reality picking will become a promising solution for your distribution center.

Conclusion

So, there you have it.  Four order picking technologies with low overhead and a fast ROI.  It’s time to get away from the stress and constant surveillance of your paper picking process.  Get a system that monitors and directs the entire thing for you.  Your time is much too valuable and you’ve got better things to do with it. If you need suggestions on what exactly these “better things” are, I’ll give you some in my next article. Until then, save the trees; go paperless!

Nick VanWallaghen is a Logistics Consultant for Bastian Software Solutions at the Kentucky office in Louisville. He studied Mechanical Engineering at the University of Kentucky and earned his Master’s in Supply Chain Management through Penn State University. Nick is a certified Lean Six Sigma Green Belt and is a graduate of GE’s Operations Management Leadership Program. His team is involved in projects globally with a focus in the US and Canada. In his free time, Nick is an avid golfer and enjoys spending time with his new bride, Sarah.

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