Expert Insight: Sorting it Out
By Cliff Holste
Date: November 12, 2009

Logistics News:  DC Logistics Professionals – Still Searching For Non-Automated Alternatives For Improving Picking Productivity Numbers?


Can Adopting Non-Automated Strategies Produce Efficiencies On Par With Automated Solutions?

While it is clear that many DCs will benefit from the emerging Automated Case Picking (ACP) technologies as described in SC Digest just released report (to download the report, go to Automated Case Picking 2009: The Next Frontier In Distribution Center Management), some will continue to search for other alternatives.


To improve operational throughput and productivity, logistics professionals must first take a hard look at current processes. An inefficient, but well established and integrated current process usually is not something that can just be easily fixed, i.e., band-aid approach. It requires analysis and creative thinking.


So, if you’re up for the challenge - here’s a few relatively quick and simple, but often overlooked non-automated strategies that may yield high productivity numbers for your DC picking operation.

Segregate Single Line Orders

One of the most common performance measures in distribution operations is the average lines per order. Using this measure can be particularly troubling when the number is low, say 2-5 lines. To accurately judge performance, what you really need to know is what percentage of the orders are single-line orders, and what the average number of lines for multi-line orders is.


Single-line orders generally can be picked in large batches. Because they don’t need to be consolidated with other items, they often can be picked directly into a shipping carton or envelope, thereby, eliminating the packing and sorting function altogether. In a parcel-shipping environment, moreover, single-line case orders could be batched to allow operators to pull a full pallet, and then apply customer shipping labels to the individual cases.

Lot Sizes Of One For Retail Distribution

In retail, large quantities are not always the best way to go. When you replenish orders on a one-for-one basis (actually units sold) the downstream savings can be substantial. The new item(s) can go directly to its place on the store shelf. Double handling in the store is eliminated. There is no backroom inventory to manage.


That's great for the retail outlet, but what about the DC? Piece picking may, in fact, be suicide in the DC based on current practices. But rethinking order fulfillment processes to optimize "each-picking" tasks could yield significant productivity improvements in both the DC and the store.


There are several ways to accomplish that. Start by thinking about the final destination of the inventory inside the store. The small orders that are created by increased delivery frequency, for example, can be further divided to match fixtures, aisles or backroom layouts. Several of these "sub-orders" can be picked simultaneously as an efficient batch in a single pick trip at the DC. Loose pieces also can be bagged and labeled with the pick ticket at the DC. As a result, the store or the branch will receive products grouped and identified.

Meanwhile, the pick path for the batch can be greatly reduced if products are slotted at the DC to mimic the way that orders are received from the store. This will challenge you to choose pick-face configurations in the DC that combine efficiency for the fast movers with close proximity for the slower movers.


This may sound old-fashioned. Before we had sophisticated warehouse management systems to optimize DC operations, warehouses and back rooms were often arranged by product family or by vendor, and often in part-number sequence. Perhaps you can use similar methods now to optimize product flow to the store shelf.

Look For Family Groups

When it comes to multi-line orders, sometimes pickers are fortunate enough to pick an entire order without travelling far on the pick path. How can you make that the rule rather than just a matter of luck?


One way is to consider how your customers place their orders when deciding where to slot specific products on the pick face. In one distribution center that handled fragrances, for example, products had been slotted by activity level and a zone picking system routed orders from zone to zone to collect picks for each order. It turned out, though, that every order originated from an order sheet that included all of the products that were related to a single fragrance. If the DC had slotted products related to each fragrance in a single bay of its carton flow rack, it would have resulted in a pick path of just 8 feet for every order!

Pick The Little Stuff First

Generally, if you begin picking all portions of an order at the same time, full-case items will arrive at the dock first. That's because broken-case picking is labor intensive and therefore slower.


At one DC belonging to a medium-sized discount retailer, the case-picking line was so productive that full cases were always waiting for the small picks. The DC operations manager was considering adding a lengthy powered conveyor buffer loop for waiting cases.


How much better, and less expensive, it would be to pre-pick the small products and stage those few totes/cartons in a flow rack. When all the broken-case picking has been completed, crank up the case-pick line and let the small-pick containers lead the cases straight into the truck.

Final Thoughts

What the above really says is, sometimes by simply removing the blinders you can see the possibilities - it’s really not that difficult.

Agree or disgree with Holste's perspective? What would you add? Let us know your thoughts for publication in the SCDigest newsletter Feedback section, and on the website. Upon request, comments will be posted with the respondent's name or company withheld.

You can also contact Holste directly to discuss your material handling or distribution challenges at the Feedback button below.

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profile 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.
Visit SCDigest's New Distribution Digest web page for the best in distribution management and material handling news and insight.

Holste Says:

Sometimes pickers are fortunate enough to pick an entire order without travelling far on the pick path. How can you make that the rule rather than just a matter of luck?

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