Inventory management is all about balancing supply with demand and ensuring neither supply nor demand becomes out of control. However, it is also about paying attention to what happens in the middle, and even if supply and demand meet happily, ensuring that every internal step is as efficient and cost-effective as possible. The internal step we will look at in this article is the picking process.
Picking is exactly as the name implies — when a product is picked up or selected from the remaining collection to fulfil a production run or product order. Even though the notion of knowing what product is needed, going to the storage area to retrieve it, finding it, recording it and taking it back to production is relatively simple, in multitude and when time is short, picking becomes an art worth paying attention to. So, here we want to consider some inventory management best practices to reduce picking time down to a bare minimum while maintaining accuracy.
Efficient picking relies on good warehouse layout. It comes down to the logistics of walking into the warehouse, through rows of stocked items, selecting what is needed and returning to production. This process takes time and so it makes sense that if, for a certain product, picking occurred more often, then this time should be reduced for better efficiency.
And how do we achieve this? By rethinking the warehouse layout so that fast-moving items are placed towards the entrance on lower shelves that enable them to be identified and picked quickly. Another facet of this is to consider shelving frequently retrieved items horizontally so that picking is done quickly at a working height. By shelving less frequently used items vertically, the time and effort taken to reach or bend down are significantly reduced.
Picking process or order
Just as picking efficiency is contingent on the physical location of products, so does the process or order of picking effect efficiency. Picking should be done according to a methodical plan and here are three of the most common methods.
Single order picking
This is where the picker must make one full trip through the warehouse per order, completing only one order at a time. This is what we have described above and as can be seen, it is not optimised in the slightest.
This is where a picker fills several orders at the same time or in a batch. As they pass through the warehouse, they might select an item that is common to all the orders and so that item is placed in the collection for each individual order and so on until all orders are filled.
This is where several pickers work as a team to fulfil orders by each being assigned to a zone and focus on only that zone. They gather all items for orders from their zone, and then the items collection bins are passed onto the next zone where that picker repeats the process for the next item.
The ideal picking method is one that fits under the banner of ‘Advanced Systems Picking’ which is where a combination of these methods is used to optimise orders for particular products in a way that reduces time and increases efficiency.
Technology, such as barcode scanning, has a massive part to play in the picking process. It is vital to think about any way in which the time taken to look at a paper or screen is reduced. Some businesses use Voice Picking Systems. They allow the picker to pass through the warehouse quickly while instructions are given through a headset. This reduces the time taken to look at a computer screen and locate information pertaining to the order, while also keeping them aware of their surroundings and moving more quickly. It is not necessarily for everyone or every product, however companies who have used it on at least their fast-moving items, have certainly experienced success.
Recognise all the players in the inventory management game
Many individual things can improve the picking process, however, the most important thing to optimise it is inventory management as a whole. This means having a bird’s-eye view of the whole inventory management system from receipt to sale, and all the individual components that work together to achieve this end.
Article by Melanie Chan in collaboration with our team of Unleashed Software inventory and business specialists. Melanie has been writing about inventory management for the past three years. When not writing about inventory management, you can find her eating her way through Auckland.