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Cliff Holste

Supply Chain Digest
Material Handling Editor

Logistics News

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.

March 23, 2016

Logistics News : Deploying Technology To Increase DC Shipping Capacity

Consolidating Hand-held Devices Speeds-up Order Processing


While the online ordering has been credited with huge increases in consumer activity it also gets blame for generating large volumes of smaller orders. To better manage this rapidly increasing activity, more adaptable multiple data collection technologies are emerging that enable pickers to pick orders and collect data while using a single PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) device. This technology is referred to as “multi-modal”.

Holste Says...

With multi-modal, these technologies, along with RFID, are on one device and system, thereby eliminating the need to manually switch from the voice application to the scanning application.

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For example, let’s say that in a voice directed picking application, the operator must record a lot number for tracking purposes (a common requirement in many consumer goods operations). Voice will direct the pickers to the location and tell them what to pick. Then, they scan the lot number because that’s more accurate and faster than speaking a lengthy number. With multi-modal, these technologies, along with RFID, are on one device and system, thereby eliminating the need to manually switch from the voice application to the scanning application. The time saved will accelerate order processing.

While batch order picking and automated sorting methods can offer substantial productivity gains over discrete order picking methods, automated sorting systems often represent the most critical shipping capacity constraint for even the most technically advanced operations. Over the years Distribution Digest has discussed this issue with DC operations managers and uncovered a number of opportunities to squeeze a little more shipping capacity from them. The following is a short list of suggested operational and control changes that can potentially improve system performance:

  • Test different picking strategies like limiting the pickers to no more than two active pick batches at a time. This will increase system throughput by reducing congestion on the sorter caused by cases that are being re-circulated (holding pattering) waiting for a shipping lane to become available.
  • Review critical path conveyors, including the sorter itself, to determine if there speed can be increased. This may be as simple as changing the ratio of the drive sprockets – Note: check with your system provider as higher speed may impact on equipment and/or system operations.
  • Bypass the sorting system for single-line orders (common among Internet orders) and those that may be completed with a sub-set of popular products.
  • At the central merge, invest in up-to-date merge control logic (offered by the system provider) that can reduce the gap distance between cases to just a few inches thereby increasing throughput capacity.
  • Adjust labor in upstream operations to reduce congestion and to maintain a steady workflow through, Picking, Packaging, Weighing & Manifesting, etc. Adjusting labor to prevent accumulation lines from becoming full and shutting down upstream production areas is an on-going system management challenge.

Another shipping capacity enhancing opportunity can be found in the typical order picking operation:

  • Pick-&-Pass is a popular discrete order picking method where cartons and/or tote boxes containing picked products are conveyed from one picking zone to the next in series. The productivity challenge is to maintain a level workload in each zone. If there is no queue of work coming into the zone, then the picker is idle. If there is a surge of work, congestion can occur. Either way, throughput slows down. Worse yet, when left unchecked, either condition can potentially starve downstream operations.

In this type of picking operation it is common to have a high occurrence of single line orders or orders that can be completed in a single pick zone (typical of Internet orders). These orders can be held back in the WMS and used to fill lulls in the flow of multi-zone orders. This will increase productivity by reducing congestion caused by a surge in single line orders, while interleaving work into otherwise idle zones.

  • In another Pick-&-Pass example - as pickers move along the face of the flow rack or down an aisle of bin shelving, their productivity can be improved considerably by reversing the sequence of locations for the next order to be picked so that the return trip is used productively.

Most WMS programs can easily provide the above capabilities, especially when picking is directed by RF or Voice Directed technologies.

Final Thoughts

If you haven’t done so already, now is a good time to have your existing WMS evaluated to make sure you are utilizing all of the available built-in functionality. You will find that there are many functions imbedded in the standard modules that can be activated to improve shipping capacity.

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

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