Order Picking Methods: Which Strategy is Best for You?


What is order picking?

Order picking is the process of retrieving items from a storage area to fill customer orders. An order picker can manually pick orders using packing slips or use a hand-held scanner hooked up to a warehouse management system (WMS) to scan the barcodes of the products in an order. The packing slips or WMS tell the picker where the products are located and the best route to take to retrieve them.



Why is order picking important?

Order picking systems are some of the most important operations in a warehouse or distribution center. It can account for up to 50% of the total labor costs in these facilities. That’s why it’s so important to choose an order picking method that will be efficient and effective for your operation.



Order Picking Methods


There are several different order picking procedures to choose from. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks, so it’s important to select the one that will work best for your facility and your products.

The most common order picking methods are:


1) Piece Picking

With piece picking, the picker only takes one order at a time and grabs the items for the order.

Advantages:

  • High pick accuracy

  • Simple

  • Easy to train

Disadvantages:

  • Slow

Best Used For: Situations when you have extra-large products where you can only bring back one order at a time.

2) Batch Picking

Batch picking is similar to piece picking, except instead of one order being picked at a time, multiple orders are picked at once. It is best to use this method if products are in the same general area and if you have an OMS/WMS that will prioritize the pick order for products for efficiency. The WMS will instruct you to pick items in the shortest path and will go in order of item, not by order.


There are a few options here:

  • Multiple orders can be assigned to a picker using the WMS, and they can use the scanner to pick.

  • Inventory for multiple orders can be printed on one packing list and brought back in bulk to be packed into individual orders.

  • Multiple packing lists can be printed at once and packed to totes on a pick cart.

Advantages:

  • Faster than piece picking

  • Simple

  • Easy to train

Disadvantages:

  • Slightly more prone to errors

  • Requires an OMS/WMS to be done effectively

Best Used For: General all-around fulfillment.

3) Zone Picking

For zone picking, pickers are assigned to certain "zones" in the warehouse. When an order comes in with units from zones A and C, the picker in zone A will pick the units in their zone into a tote and then pass the tote on a conveyor belt over to the next zone. Once in zone C, the picker for that area will pick the remaining units and the finished tote will go back on the conveyor to the packing stations.


Advantages:

  • Faster than batch picking

  • Least travel time required for pickers

Disadvantages

  • Complex

  • Only truly effective at scale

  • Expensive and complicated to implement

  • Uneven distribution of labor can occur


Best Used For: High volume products in large warehouses.



4) Wave Picking

In wave picking, certain types of orders (common combinations of products for example) are picked at the same time.


Advantages:

  • Faster than batch picking at high volume and low # of SKU/order combinations

  • Operations can be effectively segregated (picking, packing, shipping)

Disadvantages:

  • The more SKUs and order combinations the less efficient it will be

  • The more SKUs and order combinations the more complex it will be

Best Used For: High volume, low SKU operations.

What is the Best Warehouse Picking Strategy?

As you can see from our above breakdown, the warehouse picking strategy that is best for one company may not be the best for another company. And although we broke it down into four main picking methods, these methods are oftentimes used in conjunction with one another. If you are handling multiple clients, some may work best with a batch picking method, while others may be better done in waves.


The main things to consider are your warehouse size, order volume, SKU profile, and technological capabilities. Low SKU or high volume operations may do better with a more segmented picking method that allows for more optimization. High SKU or low volume operations normally do better with a less-specialized piece picking or batch picking method.




How to Improve Your Order Picking Strategy


1) Upgrade to a WMS

A warehouse management system will optimize your picking and packing efficiency while implementing a number of procedures to improve pick accuracy and box selection.


2) Utilize barcode scanners

Barcode scanners are crucial to effective inventory management and picking accuracy. These scanners will verify that you are putting the right product in the right tote every time.

3) Implement robots

At extremely high volume, robots can work in place of or alongside humans to automate many warehouse processes. There is a high upfront cost, but over time it becomes cheaper.

Order Picking Procedures and Best Practices

  • Use totes with labels and barcodes. Rather than trying to pick orders one at a time, using totes allows you to pick multiple orders to a cart at a time. The danger of this can be mixing items and orders, so labels and barcodes can foolproof the process.

  • Restock high-volume items frequently. If you're like most well-designed warehouses, you will have a pick bin for each item and a larger storage location to replenish as necessary. You should go through bins daily to make sure to restock them, so you don't find yourself picking from storage location. Certain high-volume items may need to be restocked multiple times a day, but this will make your picking more efficient.

  • Optimize your warehouse space. Your warehouse setup should be based on the products and services you offer, as well as the size of your space. Hiring a warehouse design consultant can save you thousands and help make the most of your warehouse footprint. You'll commonly see a receiving area, a pallet storage area, a picking area, a packing area, and a staging area for outbound orders.

  • Keep high-volume SKUs together and close to the packing area. If you will be picking hundreds of certain items per day, you will want those closer to the packing area so your pickers do not have to go as far each time. You'll also want to keep them close to each other so you can pick faster, since you'll be spending a lot of time packing them, and don't want to be caught trekking back and forth across the warehouse each time.

  • Establish and track KPIs. If you don't know how efficient your workers are, there's no way to know if your "improvements" are working. You should be tracking things like the number of picks and orders per hour to help you determine how many workers you need and how many orders someone can complete in a day. Once you know this, you can use it as a benchmark and test different strategies to optimize your pick and pack process.

 

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