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Order fulfillment is a complex process for many retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers and 3PL’s. If you’re a seasoned industry professional working in operations when you hear the term “order picking” what comes to mind? There are many approaches used to optimize order fulfillment and they vary widely based on product type and the number of products available for fulfillment. Fulfillment and inventory management go hand-in-hand and depending on the product lines and the warehouse management system in place, optimizing the order picking process can have a significant impact on order fulfillment. Here are some of the popular approaches to managing the order picking process.
Also referred to as location-based picking, as the term implies, the picking is done one item at a time and typically the picker moves from one location to another to obtain the products. In the single order picking method, the picker may be required to visit many different areas of the warehouse to obtain the items. Single Order Picking is often what people think of as where “voice picking” applies – since this was the first type of picking that was voice-enabled. However, times have changed and while some people may still perceive “voice picking” as only applicable to single order picking, the definition falls short. Voice enabling technology can now be used with a variety of picking approaches, as well as with other workflows in the distribution center.
In the Zone Picking method, areas of the warehouse are designated as zones and are designed to fit the unique requirements of a particular product line as well as the order frequency for the products in the zone. In this method, the pickers remain in the zoned area and pick only the products in that zone. Order fulfillment may move from zone to zone to complete the order (pick and pass) or all zones then deliver to a central location for consolidation.
Batch Picking, or multi-order picking, allows the pickers to pick multiple orders or batches for the same product based on SKU, minimizing the time needed to travel between several pick locations to fulfill multiple orders for the same item.
Wave picking also aims to reduce the picking time by batching orders for efficiency and is an approach often used when there are many SKU’s and multiple product lines. Waves of picking can occur simultaneously with the final orders merged at the consolidation point before moving to the shipping area. Waves of picks can be created based on common characteristics such as the product lines, order urgency, or shipping method.
Picking can be further optimized by combining picking approaches. Optimizing warehouse flows is an ongoing process that is related to inventory availability and changing order requirements from buyers. Some organizations analyze product purchases and periodically adjust product locations to optimize picking.
Paper-based systems are typically used by smaller businesses. According to a survey from the Warehouse Education and Research Council (WERC) from 2018, approximately a third of warehouses are using paper-based systems.
WMS or ERP solutions available from leading software vendors or developed in-house, are critical to managing and optimizing inventory and order fulfillment for larger firms with many SKU’s and higher order volumes. Barcode scanners are often used in conjunction with the WMS system to quickly and accurately track items picked.
Legacy voice solutions were first introduced to the market over two decades ago. Custom integration with the WMS system is required to use these solutions. They also require a direct connection to the WMS through a voice server and often middleware as well. Legacy voice solutions are typically user-dependent voice solutions that also require users to create voice files that are used by the system to recognize voice commands. These voice files must be created and maintained for all users of the system. Legacy voice solutions are often configured at implementation and do not offer easy options for organizations to make simple changes to voice-enabled processes.
Leveraging more recent technology innovations, modern voice automation runs entirely on mobile devices. There is no integration with the WMS system needed and there is no need for a voice server to be installed or maintained and as a result, no voice training of users is required. Modern voice automation uses speaker-independent voice recognition that works for multiple languages and is multimodal. Barcode scanning and visual elements on devices such as heads-up-displays are easily integrated with modern voice automation. Modern voice automation also includes RPA, or robotic process automation as part of the process automation. This allows repetitive elements of processes to be fully automated, speeding the process and increasing accuracy. Modern voice picking is implemented at the point of work or at the Edge. Because it is an edge-based technology, data capture is possible at the point of work, and modern voice automated picking works equally well with on-premises or cloud/SaaS models of the backend solution. This allows modern voice automated picking to fit with traditional WMS deployments, in-house developed WMS systems and a cloud-based WMS solutions.
Fully or partially automated picking with systems and/or robotics or AMRs may involve a complete redesign of the distribution facilities or warehouse, for instance a fully automated warehouse. Fully automated facilities require careful planning and implementation with a trusted partner and often fit fulfillment for some products better than others. The fully automated approach also requires a significant capital investment to implement and often the pricing includes recurring fees such as annual fees for AMR’s for example.
Many organizations can benefit from modern voice picking. Here’s a summary of the initiatives driving the interest.
… when you want to see productivity improvements for your existing operations – incremental improvements that provide tangible results quickly – in four to six months on average – at a price point that you can justify internally to your management team.
…when you want to get new and seasonal staff up to speed quickly or if you’re looking to shorten the time needed to train new workforce members on your unique processes. Voice guided workflow directs workers through the process, and you benefit from shorter training time and less lead time for hiring seasonal staff.
…when you are in an extremely competitive environment and need to demonstrate improved productivity immediately – and time is of the essence. Modern voice automation can be deployed rapidly, and the benefits of voice automation are well documented.
… when you would like to use the voice technology for multiple applications in the DC, such as put-a-way, cycle-count, receiving, shipping, and more. With modern voice automation, your initial investment will include the ability to deploy the software to additional applications.
…when you’re interested in improving the overall workflow for one or more processes. Modern voice automation can incorporate spoken information, text-to-speech, scanning of barcodes, automation of functions on the device, and reading or accessing the device screen/keyboard if desired.
Voice picking today is no longer limited to discrete or single order picking. Voice solutions have evolved to offer flexibility and productivity benefits that exceed that of legacy voice solutions. Modern voice automation is implemented entirely on the mobile device and is user independent. It can be used for a variety of picking approaches from batch to wave picking and with many workflows including voice-put-a-way, voice-cycle-count, and many other processes inside and outside the four walls. Automating the workforce with voice driven I/O delivers new value for manufacturing, supply chain & distribution operations professionals, just when it’s needed the most.