Steps into Goods-to-Person Order Picking Systems

Picture1In the typical conventional warehouse, only about 40% of each order picker’s time is spent actually picking products to fill orders; the other 60% is taken up with walking to, between and from picks. That means these same associates are only engaged in revenue-generating activity about 40% of the time. That’s one reason more companies are taking a closer look at goods-to-person (also sometimes called goods-to-man) order fulfillment solutions.

As a basic rule-of-thumb, the ideal application for automating your warehouse with a goods-to-person system is one with a high number of SKUs and an increase in demand for just-in-time ordering—such as e-commerce. As with all automation implementations, there is a range of complexity levels associated with different goods-to-person technology installations. These levels, or steps, are built upon scalable warehouse automation technologies, allowing each to be integrated into an operation progressively, as a business—and its order fulfillment needs—grows.

Step 1: Put walls. The entry level into goods-to-person picking for a conventional, manual warehouse is to convert from discrete order picking to batch picking. Orders are analyzed by the facility’s warehouse management system (WMS) and grouped based on commonality of required stock keeping units (SKUs). Operators, assigned to different pick zones of the warehouse’s storage areas, pick just the items in their zone required by the batch of orders for a given put wall, placing them in a tote.

Multiple batch-picked totes are then delivered manually by an operator from each applicable pick zone to a put wall, which is a divided shelving system with anywhere from 20 to 80 openings, called cubbies. Each cubby represents a single order. An operator stationed at the put wall scans each item’s barcode, then matches it to the corresponding order position(s) in the wall. The sorting of the batch picked items into separate orders can be handled with a voice-, light- or screen-directed put system for time savings and higher accuracy. The advantages of put wall-based order fulfillment systems include reduced travel time per item picked, as operators are stationed within picking zones, and the ability to fill more orders with just one pass through the warehouse.

Step 2: Conveyors. Adding conveyors to transport the batch-picked totes from the picking zones to the point of sortation into discrete orders at put walls eliminates human travel from the two locations. Depending on the size of the warehouse and the number of picking zones, the number of totes sent to each zone can be optimized. New, empty totes can be assigned to each zone (which may result in an excess of totes at the pick wall depending on order volumes), or single totes can travel from zone to zone with a zone route conveyor system, which only diverts totes into the areas with SKUs required for picking. This results in fewer totes being delivered to the put wall(s), reducing the potential for congestion.

Step 3: Shuttle-based automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS). Single- or multi-SKU donor totes are brought directly to an operator using automated storage and retrieval systems. Shuttle-based systems offer higher throughput than crane-based AS/RS, delivering the items needed at a put wall at faster speeds than a batch pick conveyor-based tote transport system. Further, associates no longer have to be stationed within specific picking zones in the warehouse; they can be assigned instead to picking from shuttle-delivered totes into orders at the put wall(s).

Step 4: Shuttle-based SKU delivery to ergonomic, automated workstations. This highest level of warehouse automation eliminates virtually all associates’ walking time. When the single-SKU donor totes arrive at the workstation, the operator simply has to remove the number of items as directed by the automation, then place them in an outbound shipping carton or a tote. Once all picks from the donor tote are confirmed, the donor tote is returned to the AS/RS; similarly, once the outbound order carton or tote picks are complete, the outbound container is sent to final packout. Other advantages to this system—particularly for high-value products such as electronics or pharmaceuticals—include higher security and reduced shrinkage, as workers are no longer wandering the warehouse but rather stationed in a central area where managers can supervise them closely. Further, this level of automation enables impromptu cycle counting. In the midst of picking, the WMS can prompt the operator to push a button confirming that a certain number of items remain in the donor totes for instant, real-time verification of inventory levels.

Other Benefits

In addition to minimizing travel time and boosting (revenue generating) picking productivity, goods-to-person picking benefits include:

  • Reduced head count. With pickers spending more time picking, productivity goes up without needing to hire more personnel. This is particularly appealing to businesses with high turnover, high labor costs or a limited pool of available labor in their area.
  • Consistent reliability. Inconsistent labor availability can have a dramatic (and negative) impact on throughput in manual operations. Associates may call in sick, or a facility may have difficulty filling job openings, resulting in a decrease in handling and order fulfillment rates. Conversely, automated goods-to-person systems are highly dependable.
  • Improved ergonomics. At the person-end of a goods-to-person system, ergonomically designed workstations offer features such as height adjustability to eliminate stretching and reaching. Associates stationed there only have to take a few steps to fill orders from the SKUs brought to them, rather than walking all over a warehouse to find needed SKUs, reducing fatigue.
  • Better accuracy. With the addition of voice-, light- or screen-directed picking systems at a put wall or workstation, operators are guided to place the correct item with the order that needs it. Accuracy rates in applications using these systems have been shown to improve to as much as 99.99%.

Want to learn more? Read how machine manufacturer Grob converted from a conventional person-to-goods picking facility to an automated goods-to-person system to supply their assembly workstations, here. Ready to hear more? Call viastore at 616.977.3950 for a personalized consultation and analysis to help determine which level of goods-to-person automation can help your operation fill more orders more productively.

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