Distribution centers are losing an average of nearly $390,000 every year due to mis-picks, according to a study conducted by Everett, Wash.-based Intermec Inc. The study surveyed 250 supply chain and distribution managers across the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany and discovered that the average mis-pick costs approximately $22. More than half of the surveyed companies reported a pick rate of less than 97 percent, and 19 percent said that they do not measure the costs of mis-picks in any form, suggesting that the accumulated losses to the supply chain might be even higher than reported. Yet, 47 percent of respondents named picking as a key area where cost savings could be achieved most easily. To do so, nearly three-quarters of managers said that increasing automation or new technologies would have the greatest impact on increasing profitability.

Despite the study’s findings, picking products using a paper list remains the most prevalent picking technique in warehouses, according to Jay Blinderman, director of product marketing for Vocollect, a business unit of Intermec Inc. However, in many cases, emerging picking technologies are giving it a run for its money due to their accuracy, efficiency and scalability, experts suggest.

Hand-picked for scalability

Although picking by paper, picking by voice, picking with an RF handheld device and picking by light are the Top 4 most prominent picking techniques in conventional warehouses, picking by voice has grown the most in the last five years, says Greg Chaffee, vice president of food and beverage industry sales for System Logistics Corp., Lewiston, Maine. This is partially because of the proliferation of SKUs in beverage warehouses, which creates a greater need to access more picking locations often spread across a greater distance, he explains.

Retailers’ intolerance for error and the need for accountability also are pushing picking technologies further, Vocollect’s Blinderman says.

“An out-of-stock or mis-picked item has a negative impact on everybody in the value chain,” he says. “So, if the consumer shows up and the wrong product is there or the right product is unavailable, that’s a problem. Now, that can be traced back to the origin.”

Tracking workers’ performance to determine accountability as well as keeping track of order statuses and other statistics in real time has become prominent within beverage warehouses in recent years, says Ken Ruehrdanz, manager of the distribution systems market for Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Dematic.

Additionally, unlike picking by paper, voice-picking frees up the worker’s hands so that he or she can focus on the task at hand, Blinderman says. The system consists of a mobile device and headset. On average, companies report an approximately 35 percent increase in productivity and 25 percent reduction in errors when they move to voice-picking, he adds.

“Instead of looking at the piece of paper and then figuring out what aisle I need to travel to and then what pick slot I need to go to, the voice-pick system actually directs them,” he explains. Workers also can ask the system to repeat itself, provide a description of the product they’re picking and more, he adds. Launching this month, the company’s new Talkman A700 solution integrates voice and scanning in one wearable system, which enables the worker to scan a product if the product code has become illegible. The solution also features improved speech recognition and quicker self-training processes, the company says.

Likewise, Dematic’s new PickDirector paperless solution equips workers with a wearable computer that gives verbal instructions including a product description and pick quantity, Ruehrdanz says. A scanner connected to the device also ensures the accuracy of each pick, he says.

Although voice-picking systems can be implemented in any size warehouse, oftentimes the scope of a warehouse, SKU count and product volume determine the most appropriate picking technologies, experts say.

Typically, large warehouses that produce between 8 and 10 million cases a year already have a voice-pick system and/or other automated picking systems in place, says Jon Schultz, vice president of business development for Westfalia Technologies Inc., York, Pa. On the other side of the spectrum, smaller warehouses that produce between 2 and 5 million cases a year usually do not use a very sophisticated system, he says. Nevertheless, only 10-15 percent of beverage warehouses distribute 10 million cases or more a year, so the majority of the market consists of small warehouses, he adds. Therefore, many opportunities exist among these warehouses when considering new picking technologies.

Picking by voice is a good option for lower-volume warehouses or warehouses that require a “man-to-goods” operation, System Logistics’ Chaffee says. Voice-pick solutions like Intelligrated Inc.’s Datria voice-over Internet protocol (VOIP) mobile phone technology also can be expanded to other functions within a warehouse. By using Wifi in a facility, the solution can be used in picking as well as receiving, time and attendance, field use, and road-type situations, says Gene Billings, director of software products for the Mason, Ohio-based company.

Picking processes

For growing warehouses, ITW Warehouse Automation (ITWWA) offers its Vertique case-picking solution, which specializes in mixed-case picking. Using this solution, facilities typically have three different picking areas — automatic, semi-automatic and manual — depending on the frequency of the product, says John Barry, vice president of sales and marketing for the Americas for ITWWA, Arden, N.C.

“In the beverage industry, a typical bottler would have somewhere between 450 and 500 SKUs,” he says. The most popular 15-20 SKUs would be picked using a low-level automated solution, such as Tygard Machine & Manufacturing Co.’s Tygard Claw layer-picking forklift attachment, he says. Because these SKUs are fast-movers, operators can pick full layers of product at a time, he explains.

“Semi-automatic would be where you’re unloading by hand onto a conveyor, but you’re automatically dispensing it into the system,” Barry says. “So all you’re doing is you’re just replenishing a rack of conveyors. That individual doesn’t know how those orders are going to be fed; all his responsibility is that he’s got to keep that conveyor full of product.”

These slower-moving products make up segmented layers on a pallet, he adds.

The third segment of case building is manual hand-picking for the slowest-moving SKUs, Barry says. In this scenario, workers are being instructed by a mobile device that tells them how to pick it and in what sequence to pick it, he explains. ITWWA’s particular manual pick solution is called Swift Pick, which consists of a wristband attached to a mobile touchscreen device that enables the worker to scroll through a list to pick an order, he adds.

“The fast-movers still make up 70 percent of what [distributors] put out every day, and the art is to be able to marry those fast-movers and slow-movers and to be able to do it on a timely basis and to do it with as few people as possible,” Barry says.

The middle ground

Following this adage, Westfalia offers a system that provides a middle ground for facilities, Schultz says. One of its newest technologies integrates manual picking into an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS).

“The problem with picking in the conventional buildings, and just a conventional approach, is the more SKUs you have, the more space you need,” he explains. By integrating Westfalia’s high-density storage systems with manual picking modules, warehouses maximize their space while increasing picking efficiency, he adds.

“Up until these last few years, we’ve seen the food companies doing stuff like this, and that’s kind of where we did most of our business when it came to picking,” he says. “But with consolidations in the beverage industry and bigger warehouses handling more SKUs [in recent years], we’re finding that space is really becoming an issue for a lot of our customers,” he says. “This is a solution that solves a space issue, and it solves that problem for them. Typically, it’s a cost point that’s more attractive than an all-in automated picking solution; it’s kind of that middle ground.”

Dematic’s Ruehrdanz notes that goods-to-person order fulfillment using a high-density AS/RS to bring SKUs to the order assembly area is a trend that is gaining acceptance in the marketplace because it can improve efficiency and accuracy.

High-volume solutions

In addition to AS/RS solutions, innovations in delayering and descrambling cases from source pallets have led to high-speed robotic layer grippers that can remove an entire layer of product, says System Logistics’ Chaffee. The robot can be used either to build a full layer on an order pallet or to pick a layer’s worth of one SKU to be descrambled and sent to the case-picking or sequencing area, he explains.

System Logistics’ newest picking system, however, is its Automatic Pick to Pallet System (APPS) solution.

“APPS is the ideal solution for beverage customers who wish to automate their logistics picking processes characterized by applications with up to 1,000 SKUs [and] a high number of orders requiring three to four SKUs per mixed order pallet with picks per line count in the six to 10 range,” Chaffee says. “In the APPS system, the management of the single case is performed by an anthropomorphic robot equipped with a sophisticated vision system that performs all the handling and manipulation of different cases, taking them directly from the source pallet to the custom-mixed order pallet, making the entire process streamlined, efficient and simple.”

On the manual picking side, pick-to-light solutions also work well in high-volume warehouses, Intelligrated’s Billings says.

“Usually, when it comes to pick to light … it isn’t so much the SKU proliferation as it is the actual pick rates that you’re interested in,” he says.

As a worker walks down an aisle of a beverage warehouse, lights direct him to the product he needs to pick, Billings explains.

Nevertheless, the type of picking solution differs for every distributor based on the product type, product volume and desired functionality of the warehouse, he says.

“We have some places where there’s absolutely no order fillers in the building whatsoever; it’s all done through AS/RS and order selection systems feeding palletizers,” Billings explains. “Then we have other facilities that are completely voice-activated where they’re walking around with high loads and picking directly to pallet and picking per pack as well. It’s matching the right technology to the rates that the client’s expecting and what the products actually are.”

As brands and packaging sizes continue to proliferate, automation will likely become more mainstream, according to experts.

 “The broadening evolution of consumer products, which consequently drives exponential growth in the number of products to be managed, will further drive the need for automation to be applied to the order fulfillment process,” System Logistics’ Chaffee says. “Savvy users will strive to automate the portion of the business that has the highest velocity and, therefore, the highest payback. The slow-moving SKUs will continue to be served in less equipment-intensive and often ‘man-to-goods’ methods.”