Part two of this four-part article looks closer at some of the new ways to run a warehouse.

When improving warehouse picking, one of the most popular technologies that jan/san distributors employ are scanner guns — handheld devices that display the next order for the picker while sharing with the distributor’s warehouse management system.

Instead of a picking system that relies on physical pick tickets that are printed, the pick order and the location of the item are displayed on a digital window on the scanner gun that the picker carries with him. Once he picks an item, the picker uses the gun to scan the bar code, sending the data to the warehouse system.

“It’s much more efficient if the system takes those pick tickets and loads them on device so the picker can just follow the instructions on the device,” says Gusdorf.
 
One of the keys to using scanner guns is to make sure that pickers are trained to blindly follow the instructions on the device. The technology is built to create efficiencies that would be lost if picker chooses to go his own way.

“You’ve got to tell people not to try to out-think the gun,” says Bader. “The ones that choose to blindly follow it are the ones that are the most productive.”

Hands-free Picking

Scanner guns improve pickers’ productivity, but workers will still have to continually holster the gun to grab the item. However, a picker in a voice-picking warehouse wears a headset that enables him to listen to an automated voice that gives the location and item information that he uses to go pick the next order. A pick-to-voice system can lead to more productivity, because it frees up the picker’s hands so he is quicker at physically removing and processing the item.

“So if you got a lot of full cases or a lot of pallets that you’re picking, pick-to-voice can increase your picker productivity,” says Gusdorf. “The advantage of a voice system is that your people can work hands-free and eye-free. They don’t have to look at the gun. They can look at the bin and that may increase the likelihood they are picking the right item.”

Many voice-to-pick systems consist of user functionality that allows the picker to control the volume of the automated voice, repeat the order or fast-forward through an order when necessary.

Voice-directed picking is considerably more expensive than guns because of the complexity of the system it relies on.

A distributor may not experience enough productivity improvement to make an investment in voice-picking if the enterprise typically fills orders that consist of a lot of items, the items are small or if the items are typically spread out throughout the warehouse.

“If you are picking out of one zone where your cases or pallets are, you are going to experience that productivity improvement that you want,” says Gusdorf. “If things are happening really fast, the picker’s ability to retain all that information and do the right thing is degraded.”

Pick-to-light: Accurate, But Expensive

Distributors with large warehouses can maximize productivity with pick-to-light systems. Warehouse employees in a pick-to-light environment select items from bins based on a light system. A warehouse system that relies on light to direct and inform the picker is somewhat unusual in small to mid-size distributors because of the large infrastructure investment needed.

Pick-to-light can be effective if it is implemented in one zone of a warehouse where the fastest moving items are stored. For example, in a pick-to-light environment, the picker would receive a pick ticket that consists of items from only one zone. When the picker is in the zone, he or she would be instructed through light which items to select without having to refer back to the pick ticket and then place them into a tote or onto a conveyor belt.

“If I have a type of business where I can organize my warehouse appropriately and I can have somebody who’s picking items out of a zone, then it might make economic sense for me to use pick-to-light,” says Gusdorf.

A pick-to-light system requires less training than alternatives such as voice and scanner gun systems, because the picker only needs to follow the light signals rather than understand a range of picking instructions.

“The picker does not have to process too much information, because the picker will not have instructions that they have to read or listen to,” says Gusdorf.
 
The effectiveness of pick-to-light systems may be outweighed by the complex technology and capital investment it requires to be able to direct pickers by light based on information from the warehouse management system.

“Pick-to-light is going to be the most expensive and most accurate but is going to be limited to a specific area where you can really get the benefit from your investment,” compared to a system based on scanner gun, says Gusdorf. “Like everything, there are tradeoffs.”