The warehouse is one of the most rapidly evolving aspects of modern business, especially in the growing ecommerce market. The biggest warehouses are adopting drones and robotics to help or replace humans, while even the smallest are picking up the software to help increase accuracy levels.
Changes are also happening in how people move and work within the warehouse, especially the pick and pack methods. Warehouse picking practices that fill orders, get them packed, and moved out the door are growing and changing as products and order volumes increase too.
Start small, and when bottlenecks start to occur, look for new methods and opportunities. To help you find out where to go next, we’ll take a look at the four most common pick and pack methods that are used by warehouses of all sizes and complexities.
Infographic: Pick And Pack Methods
Piece picking, the most common and familiar of the pick and pack methods, form where each worker is getting items for a single order. They move around your entire warehouse, picking all of the required items off your shelves. Once they have everything together, they take the order to a packing station to be packed.
Every person has one order, no matter how long or short that order is. Usually, they also have one designated packing station they bring a complete order to, which can cause backups if your order sizes vary significantly or if some orders have hard-to-find or hard-to-carry items.
This method is also called discrete picking by some.
Which Warehouse is it For?
We see the piece picking of the pick and path methods in warehouses that are just getting started. These warehouses tend to be small and only have a few orders each day so that pickers can move quickly and methodically. In some cases, the picker and packer are the same. As your orders scale up, this can become very burdensome and lead to bottlenecks in both the pick and the pack areas.
Batch picking is when employees pick and pack batches of orders at the same time. They get pick lists that cover multiple orders and are organized by products. Each batch includes items located in the same area of the warehouse. Ultimately, this of the 4 pick and pack methods wants to give your pickers the most efficient path through the warehouse for completing all of their orders promptly.
If multiple orders need a single item, the batch picker will get enough of it to fill every order when they are there. To be its most successful, this requires a warehouse management system (WMS) that can ensure your team is picking related orders without a lot of variety of products. Labor management systems also help manage your team here.
Your team can save time and physical stress with this style if you have enough orders that they aren’t waiting for long periods between picking. If you’ve got carts or trucks, give them to your team!
Which Warehouse is it For?
Batch picking is the first step up from piece picking, but it doesn’t require a significantly large warehouse to be useful. Small businesses and warehouses will often use batch picking over other pick and pack methods so that they can focus on filling orders at a specific time of the day or during a particular shift.
If you don’t have a constant stream of orders coming in, then batch picking can be more efficient for your team compared to picking as you receive an order.
One important reason to pair this method with warehouse software is that a WMS can monitor your orders, warehouse layout, and team. Batch picking among the pick and pack methods might suggest changes to how your products are stored so team members can pick faster and with less effort.
We enter the “advanced” area of the pick and pack methods realm with zone picking, a great tactic for those larger fulfillment warehouses. In zone picking, larger warehouses make beneficial use of their space by placing products in a series of zones. Pickers stay in each zone and pick products located in their zone for any order.
After picking for their zone, warehouse workers pass off their orders to workers in the next zone. Orders progress through each zone that has any of the items on its packaging slip. Afterward, it goes to a packing station for final prep for delivery.
Which Warehouse is it For?
Zone picking requires complex coordination in your warehouse and only makes sense over the other pick and pack methods for big locations and complicated orders. Complexity is key here because zone picking is designed to minimize accuracy errors for orders that contain multiple components.
If your business experiences a mix of orders that are complicated or simple, the zone also makes sense. You can organize your space to adapt to these differences, with the small-item orders in your zones closest to packing stations — this keeps everything moving fast and accurate.
It’s also an excellent choice if you have a lot of SKUs to choose from for orders. Zones allow your team to learn regions and SKUs, becoming familiar with orders and patterns to help reduce errors while also increasing pick speeds. Having the right metrics makes its usage a little smarter as well.
The downside to this versus the other pick and path methods is that you’ve got a very defined scheduling period for orders, making you less flexible for any orders that come in late but need to be expedited. Finding the right labor mix can be difficult, too, making it necessary to have a robust WMS.
Wave picking is becoming the most common method of the pick and pack methods for large warehouses and third-party order fulfillment services. It combines batch and zone picking features by having workers pick items within a zone for a batch of orders, instead of the single-order focus of zone picking.
Wave picking helps your team fill orders faster and significantly reduces their travel time, but keeps workflows running smoothly. When used in combination with trucks, carts, and other equipment, it can be one of the quickest pick and pack methods when your warehouse scales up high.
The other difference in wave picking setups is that they tend to have conveyor belts or other systems that move goods across the warehouse. So, some orders might move from one zone to the next, while others move directly to the packing station. Packing stations can be organized to either receive complete orders at a single time, or they can receive elements for an order from each zone.
Which Warehouse is it For?
Warehouses with significant order volume and warehouse space can benefit from wave picking. You’ll need to be moving a lot of product to make the layout and infrastructure worthwhile and to invest in the technology needed to move goods most efficiently to picking stations.
This is your Amazon distribution center level stuff. Thankfully, these warehouses are big tech investors, and leading WMS providers want their business. So, they build and create new tools or modules that ultimately trickle down into systems for smaller companies.
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One Final Thought
The success of your picking strategy and what pick and pack methods to use depends on your inventory storage. Storing goods in a uniform manner where it is easy for anyone to find a product is going to save you time and money. Adding layers of technology that analyze your warehouse and suggest product and bin placements can further optimize your workforce. This might be robotics one day, but for many that day hasn’t come yet. So, match options for your budget.
Whether you’re using technology or doing the organization yourself, logic makes all the difference.
Do it right, and your workers, as well as your bottom line, will thank you.
Jake Rheude is the Director of Marketing for Red Stag Fulfillment, an ecommerce fulfillment warehouse that was born out of ecommerce. He has years of experience in ecommerce and business development.
In his free time, Jake enjoys reading about business and sharing his own experience with others.