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Warehouse picking effective methods and technologies
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Updated 13 May 2024

Warehouse picking: effective methods and technologies

To pick, that is to choose or select. You may not know it, but this verb identifies a fundamental activity for everyone who has to manage a warehouse. Are you also among them? Will you be soon? Either way, this guide will clarify what picking is and what are the best techniques for optimizing warehouse management and improving efficiency in order preparation.


What is picking and why is it so important

In the opening of this guide we have already clarified the literal meaning of picking: this term can be translated by the words “choose” or “select.”

Now, however, it is time to understand how picking takes a central role in business management and, in particular, in warehouse management.


What is picking

What is picking


The term “picking” refers to that particular activity of sorting and picking materials belonging to different load units, which is necessary when packages, components and products have to be grouped together to prepare orders for fulfillment.

You have to think of the warehouse as an orchestra, in which everything has to move “in time.” Emily Johnson, not surprisingly, explained picking this way:

“Order picking is like an orchestra playing in unison: each accurate movement brings harmony and satisfaction to the end customer.”


Impact of picking on logistics efficiency

Picking, in a warehouse, is a very important activity. From the way this operation is carried out, in fact, depends the productivity of the warehouse itself in its entirety and, especially, the ability of the company to be able to prepare and fulfill an order in the right ways and at the right time.

The picking stage is generally the stage that precedes the packing and packaging of orders to be fulfilled. This means that any errors or delays in material selection will inevitably affect the final preparation of orders.

Picking work, however, does not only have an impact on logistical efficiency: in fact, you must also consider the financial impact of this particular activity in logistics. Suffice it to say, in this regard, that picking costs can amount to more than 60 percent of the total budget.

Optimization of the entire process related to picking, therefore, is a top priority for enterprises and therefore requires precise studies on optimization methods and investments.


Picking methods: manual vs. automatic

Now that we have clarified what picking is and why it is so important in logistics, it should be pointed out that there are two different methods for completing this particular task: manual picking and automated picking.


Picking methods

Picking methods


Manual picking: features and advantages

Manual picking involves a picker who manually picks the items (in automated picking, on the other hand, the picker takes care of the items after they have been transported mechanically, for example, using so-called collaborative robots).

Traditional manual picking is done by reading the item bar code using a mobile computer connected to the company’s WMS (the warehouse management software).

Compared to automated picking, the main advantage of manual picking is, of course, economic, since robots come at a not-insignificant cost. Entrusting the task of picking to a human worker, however, also has drawbacks: for example, it exposes them to more errors and inefficiencies.


Automated picking and collaborative robotics

Nowadays, more and more companies are using collaborative robotics in logistics. Robots of this type are able to transport, autonomously and completely safely, very heavy loads (up to 1500 kilograms) from one part of the warehouse to another. The most obvious advantage is that, in this way, the work of pickers becomes much less physically demanding.


Innovative technologies for picking

Nowadays, even in manual picking, higher or lower levels of automation have been introduced, so as to make it easier and faster (as well as less tiring) for the picking staff.


Pick to light and voice picking

An example of what has just been said is called pick-to-light and consists of a procedure using illuminated LEDs to guide the attendant to the item to be picked. In voice picking, on the other hand, a voice guides the operator into the warehouse.


The use of RFID technology in picking

Another method you definitely need to know about if you want to make your picking activity more efficient is one that involves the use of RFID technology.This type of technology incredibly speeds up the picking operation due to the fact that you don’t need to bring the reader close to the item and due to the ability to identify hundreds of items in a matter of seconds.


Optimizing picking: strategies and solutions

Whether you decide to go with manual picking or opt for automated picking, you can put some precise strategies in place to optimize your business.


Improving WMS operations

These days you can’t do without warehouse management software, or WMS: this technological tool keeps track of every location change and monitors item scans in real time, dialoguing with your chosen data capture technology (barcode, pick-to-light, voice picking, RFID technology etc.).

With software of this type, you have the opportunity to reduce the distances to be traveled within the warehouse, improve flows, and generally make the management of the entire warehouse more efficient (eliminating any errors).


Strategies to reduce costs and increase productivity

Beyond the use of technology (from the warehouse management software just mentioned to collaborative robots), to optimize picking you can also better study the layout of the warehouse: for example, especially if your startup has a small warehouse or you have a limited volume of operations, you could place pallets along the upper levels of a rack, so as to take advantage of the height space and create an area dedicated to smaller load units. In a warehouse with mostly low-turnover goods, you can arrange picking along the total height of the rack, but, of course, you must use appropriate work equipment.

Another useful strategy for optimizing picking is what is known as “massive picking“: it involves selecting multiple goods for picking several orders at the same time.


Challenges and solutions in warehouse picking

One of the main problems in organizing and managing picking is choosing the right mode based on specific business needs. The possibilities, as well as the challenges to be faced, are many.


Addressing common challenges in picking

The choice of picking method to adopt is related to the characteristics of the warehouse and the degree of automation you intend to achieve in logistics, as well as, of course, the specific needs of your startup. There is, in fact, no one methodology better than the other tout-court.

Whichever mode you choose, it is essential that you ensure that the solution adopted is able to reduce marginal costs and be profitable for your startup. Keep in mind, too, that a warehouse may also have several picking stations, with different modes, both manual and automated.

If you have decided to invest in technology in logistics, one of the main challenges for you is to understand when to make investments (and which ones to make specifically). You need to know, in this regard, that many tools require a significant initial outlay, but then are capable of proving particularly profitable in the long run (eliminating inefficiencies and ensuring steady operations).

Finally, as far as collaborative robots are concerned, there is another aspect that you need to consider carefully: thinking of entrusting picking totally to robots is a mistake because you should not think of them as substitutes for workers, but rather as their invaluable allies.

Nicola Zanetti

Founder B-PlanNow® | Startup mentor | Startup consulting & marketing strategist | Leading startup to scaleup | Private angel investor | Ecommerce Manager | Professional trainer | Book writer

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