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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

April 3, 2013

Practical Solutions That Will Improve DC Throughput & Productivity

Ideas for Improving Operations without Setting Off a Chain Reaction

Based on surveys and interviews with DC operations managers, many claim they are constantly under pressure to find low cost alternative methods to improve throughput and productivity within their order processing operations. But, according to some managers, well established (ingrained) process can be very difficult to change. It appears that one of the most common deterrents is the feared “domino effect”. That is to say changes to one process will likely necessitate unplanned changes to associated processes, setting off a chain reaction creating additional complications and cost.

Listed below are (4) standalone solutions that have for some of the companies we interviewed, increase throughput and productivity while not impacting on other processes:

Holste Says:

To avoid 'domino effect' when making process changes - make sure that you are not disrupting interdependent processes, such as found in sequential picking and order assembly type operations.
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1) Pre-Pick Split Case Items


DC operators know that the timely closeout of orders on the shipping dock depends on the arrival of the last few items. Because it is very difficult (even with a WMS) to estimate how much time will be consumed picking split case items, throughput and productivity can drop dramatically near the end of each order picking cycle waiting for split case to catch-up. Worse yet, the accumulative effect over the course of several pick cycles can force an overtime situation.

Suggested Solution:

Depending on the amount of split case versus full case required to complete the orders, consider pre-picking split case items into shipping containers and staging them in flow racks located adjacent the shipping dock. The containers can then be released to the dock to coincide with full case picking. The extra handling of split case shipping containers will be more than offset by eliminating order closeout delays and reducing OT.


2) Segregate Single Line Orders


One of the most common picking metrics is the average lines per order. Using this measure can be misleading, particularly when the number is low - say 4-6 lines. To better manage picking 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.

Suggested Solution:

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 container or envelope, thereby, eliminating the packing and sorting function altogether. Moreover, in a parcel-shipping environment single-line full case orders could be batched to allow operators to pull a full pallet, and then automatically print & apply customer shipping labels to the individual cases.


3) Slot by Commonality of Items


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?

Suggested Solution:

One way is to consider how your customers place their orders when deciding where to slot specific products on the pick face. For example, consider fragrances which are typically slotted by activity level. The zone picking system routs pickers from zone to zone to collect picks for each order. Now suppose that every order originates from an order sheet that includes all of the products that are related to a single fragrance. Instead of slotting fragrances by activity level in multiple zones, if the DC slots products related to each fragrance in a single zone in segregated bays of its carton flow rack, it would result in a very short pick path for every fragrance order.

When slotting by commonality or popularity – items that are usually order together are slotted in close proximity regardless of their activity level.

Often times the pick path for the order, and/or batch, can be greatly reduced if products are slotted at the DC to mimic the way orders are received. This will challenge you to choose pick-face configurations that combine efficiency for the fast movers with close proximity for the slower movers – an exercise worth going through frequently.


4) Lot Sizes Of One For Retail Distribution


In retail distribution, large quantities are not always the best way to go. When you replenish store orders on a one-for-one basis (actual units sold) the downstream savings can be substantial. Most retailers are using POS systems. By incorporating real-time inventory functionality, the new item(s) can go directly to its place on the store shelf incrementally replacing those that have been sold during the delivery cycle. Double handling in the store is eliminated. There is no backroom inventory to manage.

Suggested Solution:

There are several ways this can be accomplished. Start by thinking about the final destination of the product 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.

Before we had sophisticated warehouse management systems to optimize DC operations, warehouses and picking zones were often arranged by product family, by vendor, or in part-number sequence. Using similar methods now will optimize product flow to the store shelf.

Final Thoughts

While the above (4) ideas may not be appropriate for every DC, in-depth analysis of a specific operation would reveal process opportunities unique to that operation. However, as a word of caution; to avoid the above mentioned domino effect when making process changes – make sure that you are not disrupting interdependent processes, such as found in sequential picking and order assembly type operations.


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