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About the Author

Cliff Holste is Supply Chain Digest's Material Handling Editor. With more than 30 years experience in designing and implementing material handling and order picking systems in distribution, Holste has worked with dozens of large and smaller companies to improve distribution performance.

Logistics News

By Cliff Holste

December 2, 2015

Logistics News: A Company's Business & Management Philosophy Drives System Design

Adopting Order Fulfillment Technologies that "FIT" the Business Profile

Holste Says:

In order to mitigate capacity and productivity issues, shippers are adopting more automated technologies, such as blending voice and light directed technologies to maximize the efficiency and accuracy of their pickers.
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Previous Columns by Cliff Holste

Sorting It Out : Profiling - Key To Optimizing Picking Strategies & Technologies

Sorting It Out : Automated Piece Picking Evaluation Criteria

Sorting It Out : Workplace Tasks Verses Workers Capabilities

Sorting It Out : Searching For Cost Effective Solutions to Piece Picking Challenges

Sorting It Out : DC Automation - Adoption Problematic For Some Businesses


When planning an order fulfillment system, business managers and system designers must be acutely aware of how the company’s business and customer profiles impact on system design and operation. It is therefore, imperative to thoroughly analyze the company’s metrics such as:


SKU mix and handling requirements,


customer order profiles,


full case and split case picking volume,


lines per order,


inventory turns,


shipping and returns policy,


as well as value added services.

All of these will factor into what type of material handling technologies would be most appropriate. However, the company’s business and management philosophy must also be factored into the planning process. For example: companies that dependent on short-range sales forecasting methods may be reluctant to fund projects that do not payback within the planning horizon. Other companies have policies that call for headcount reduction through attrition.

Of course, there are many other issues that can influence system design such as:


environmental conditions, i.e. freezer/cooler, hazardous materials, etc

inconsistent work schedules

training, safety, and ergonomics

These issues, along with decreasing productivity and increasing per piece handling cost, are factors which eventually require the adoption of order fulfillment solutions that incorporate a broad range of technologies to fix the problems.

In order to mitigate capacity and productivity issues, shippers are adopting more automated technologies, such as blending voice and light directed technologies to maximize the efficiency and accuracy of their pickers. For example: a team of order selectors use a voice directed system to pre-pick SKUs required for customer orders. Once picked, a conveyor system delivers the product to a “Put-to-Order” module. As the product arrives at the appropriate module, a light directed system indicates which SKUs are to be “put” to each order container.

To expand on this and further enhance picker performance, new multiple data collection technologies have emerged that enable pickers to pick orders and collect data while using a single PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) device. It’s referred to as “multi-modal”. As an example: let’s say that you are using voice directed picking and you have to record a lot number for tracking purposes. Voice will direct the pickers to the location and tell them what to pick. Then they will scan the lot number because that’s more accurate and faster than speaking a lengthy number. These technologies, along with RFID, are on one device and one system, thereby eliminating the need to manually switch from the voice application to the scanning application.

Order fulfillment system designs that incorporate the “goods-to-person” method, allow improved ergonomics since the items to be picked comes to the worker (worker stays in one place) while presenting each SKU to be picked at an ergonomic height with less lifting and bending. Also, automated “goods-to-person” configuration, which typically utilizes high density storage technology like AS/RS, reduces the cube space required for storing product while increasing inventory accuracy.

When the automated “goods-to-person” configuration is utilized for freezer/cooler applications, the workers are kept out of the extreme cold environment thus improving the worker experience, reducing turnover, and increasing productivity.

Final Thoughts

As solutions are sought to optimizing system design and performance there may be multi paths. However, there appears to be only one path for achieving the best overall system performance and that clearly involves the adoption of automated technologies.

The next best opportunity to learn more about automated system technologies can be found at MODEX 2016 April 4 – 7, 2016 in Atlanta, GA. Check it out at:



Recent Feedback

Great article. I am a little suprised not to see BNSF in the mix while I understand their financial mode/operation is a little different. 

That would only give a complete perspective with all the players in the pool.

Senior Consultant
May, 22 2016

Surprised to see Home Depot fall off the list; thought they were winning with Sync?

Mike O'Brien
Senior editor
Access Intelligence
May, 26 2016

Using the right tool for the right job has always been a best practice and one of the reasons, we feel, that RFID has never taken off in the DC as exponentially as pundits have been forecasting since 2006. While these results may seem surprising to those solely focused on barcode scanning, the adoption of multi-modal technologies in the DC makes perfect sense for greater worker efficiency and productivity.

Julie Leonard
Marketing Director
Jun, 27 2016

The IoT Platform in this year's (2016) Hype Cycle is on the ascending side, entering the "Peak of Inflated Expectation" area. How does this compare to the IoT positions of the previous years, which have already peaked in 2015? Isn't this contradicting in itself?

Editor's Note: 

You are right, Internet of Things (IoT) was at the top of the Garter new technology hype curve not long ago. As you noted, however, this time the placement was for “IoT Platforms,” a category of software tools from a good number of vendors to manage connectivity, data communications and more with IoT-enabled devices in the field.

So, this is different fro IoT generally, though a company deploying connected things obviously needs some kind of platform – hoe grown or acquired – to manage those functions.

Why IoT generically is not on the curve this year I wondered myself.



Carsten Baumann
Strategic Alliance Manager
Schneider Electric
Aug, 19 2016

I agree totally with Mr. Schneider.

I have always lived by "put it in writing" all my work life.  I am a firm believer of the many benefits of putting everything in writing and I try to teach it to as many people as I can.

This "putting in writing" can also be used for almost anything else.  Here are some general benefits (only some) of "putting in writing":

1. Everything is better understood between parties involved.  There are lots of people types who need something visual to improve their understanding.
2. Everyone can read to review and correct anything misunderstood.  This will ensure that all parties concerned confirm the details of the agreements as correct.  This is further enhanced by having all parties involved sign off on a hard copy or confirm via reply email.
3. Everything has a proof.  Not to belittle the element of trust among parties involved, it is always safest to have tangible proof of what was agreed on.
4. There will be a document to refer to at any time by any one who needs clarification.
5. The documentation can be useful historical data for any future endeavor.  It provides inputs for better decisions on related situations in the future.
6. This can also be compiled and used to teach future new team members.  "Learn from the past" it is said.

There are many more benefits.  Mr. Schneider is very correct about his call to "put it in writing".

Jo Ann Tudtud-Navalta
Materials Management Manager
Chong Hua Hospital, Cebu City, Philippines
Aug, 21 2016

U.S. companies are reshoring and foreign companies are investing in U.S. locations to be in close proximity to the U.S. market for customer responsiveness, flexibility, quality control, and for the positive branding of "Made in USA".

Reshoring including FDI balanced offshoring in 2015 as it did in 2014. In comparison, in 2000-2007 the U.S. lost net about 200,000 manufacturing jobs per year to offshoring. That is huge progress to celebrate!

The Reshoring Initiative Can Help. In order to help companies decide objectively to reshore manufacturing back to the U.S. or offshore, the nonprofit Reshoring Initiative's free Total Cost of Ownership Estimator can help corporations calculate the real P&L impact of reshoring or offshoring.

Sandy Montalbano
Reshoring Initiative
Aug, 24 2016

 Good article!  I am sending this to my colleagues who work with me.  We have to keep this in mind.  Thanks!

Transportation Manager
Aug, 30 2016

SCM is all about getting the order delivered to the Customer on date/ time requested because happy Customers = Revenue. Using the right tools to do the right job is important and SCM is heavily dependent on sophisticated ERP systems to get right real data info ASP.

I've worked in a DC with more than 400,000 line items and measured the Productivity of Pickers by how many "picks" per day.

I've learned that one doesn't have to remind Germany about your EDI orders.

Ian Jansen
Sep, 14 2016

Challenge - to build and sustain effective relationships at the level of the organizations that are responsible for effectively coordinating and colaborating in an otherwise highly competitive environment 

Don Benson
Warehouse Coach
Sep, 15 2016

Of course we all need to up our game. We need to move with the times, and always be one step ahead of what the future will bring.

Fulfillment Logistics UK Ltd
Oct, 02 2016

Thanks for the article, but I know there's a lot more to this issue than just the pay rates. Please check out my blogs on the subject at

Mike Dargis
President of asset-based carrier based in the Midwest
Zip Xpress Inc. (at
Oct, 03 2016

Lora, great article! I agree that companies choose the 'safe' solution more often than not. My solution is a bolt-on for legacy ERP's and we even face challeneges of customer adoption. Most like to play it safe and choose an ERP upgrade, which is more costly, time consuming, and has lower ROI across the board. Would love to learn more about your company, we are always looking for partnerships.


Inventory Specialist
Nov, 16 2016

This is a game changer in GE's production and prototyping.  It also has huge implications across the GE global supply chain with regard to the management of their support and spare parts network. 

Bob McIntyre
National Account Executive
DBK Concepts LLC
Nov, 21 2016