10 Ideas for a More Efficient Warehouse Operation

Companies often think their picking operation is efficient as long as products roll out on time and customers are happy. But most picking operations in warehouses across America could use a reorganization, and its all about the process you know ... and training, and people, and systems!

The following are 10 tips to improve your warehouse operation.

1. Profile your orders.
Your most popular SKUs likely change with the seasons, so re-slot your warehouse to accommodate your business model, and review the setup at least once a year. This ensures that your “A” SKUs are in the correct storage media and physical location, reducing unnecessary travel for your order pickers. Your warehouse management system (WMS) should have a dynamic “slotting” module.

2. Analyze your current picking methodology.
Make sure your picking methodology suits your organization. Whether you choose single order, multi-order, batch picking with a single picker, or zone picking, the correct picking methodology is critical for optimizing productivity. Hey, you can always ask a 3PL to analyze it!

3. Use software to sequence orders.
Sequencing your orders by pick path, and batching together single lines, same-zone orders, and difficult picks — such as non-conveyable items — saves tremendous time on the distribution center floor. Again, your WMS software should be able to organize the workflow, and optimize sequence performance.

4. Create a warehouse within a warehouse.
On the one hand, you can gain tremendous efficiency by grouping together the 20 percent of your SKUs that complete 80 percent of your orders. This cuts travel time for your pickers. Be sure, however, that the 80-20 area or zone is properly designed to accommodate high-volume activity. On the other hand, this is kind of old-fashioned thinking; in this day and age of the Long Tail, you may not have the ability to utilize the 80-20 rule, because you may be selling “few of many,” instead of “many of the few!”

5. Evaluate your storage equipment to ensure proper application.
Placing slow-moving, low-cube items in bin shelving and fast-moving items in carton/pallet flow — or other appropriate storage options — improves storage density and picker productivity. This also allows you to better utilize the DC’s cube. Seasonal and other promotions can mess with this idea, so beware.

6. Create “wheelhouse” zones in your picking area.
You can increase picking productivity and improve order picker ergonomics by slotting your fastest-moving SKUs in the waist-to-shoulder or “wheelhouse” area of your storage media.

7. Designate only two or three standard shipping cartons.
With only two or three boxes to choose from — plus a few custom sizes if necessary — pickers will put orders together faster. Cutting down on sizes optimizes freight expenses and reduces corrugated spend. It also makes it easier to support a pick-path methodology.

8. Consider automation.
Order pickers spend about 60 percent of their time walking product or moving product around. Consider an automated solution, such as conveyance, to reduce their extensive travel time. Multi-level pick towers also save travel time and are quite innovative.

9. Understand your technology options.
Plenty of options are available to increase efficiency — including bar codes, radio frequency, pick-to-label, pick-to-light, and voice-activated technologies. These technologies are designed to provide different levels of increased picking productivity and improved accuracy.

10. Implement an incentive program for pickers.
Incentive programs can be extremely valuable to an organization. To ensure your program is effective, you must guarantee that productivity measurements are accurate, fair and equitable. Use key performance indicators (KPIs) to drive productivity.

Finding the right balance between these 10 suggestions is quite a task. Perhaps the best way to accomplish this is to secure the services of 3PL. However, significant strides can be made through consistent, common-sense approaches to your warehouse picking operations.

JoC TENs essayist Michael Stolarczyk is the president of Kontane Logistics in Charleston, S.C. He can be contacted at michael@kontanelogistics.com.

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