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Picking to Cartons vs. Picking to Totes

Order picking on a conveyor with carousels

In a pick-to-tote operation, you have the advantage of a dedicated packing function. Since totes can be “one size (or a range of them) fits all”, your pickers can easily pick and organize totes as they navigate the system, either on conveyor or in carts. They aren’t thinking of anything but getting the pick right. Trained packers at the end of the line cartonize the orders, often using state of the art packing stations and consolidated equipment & materials. This means that you’ll have at least two employees (the picker(s) and the packer) touching each order, and that the packing group will need more square footage.  What if you decided to pick directly to cartons, eliminating the totes and reducing or eliminating the packing group?

Switching to a pick-to-carton system

Pick to carton can save costs on materials, picking and packing labor, reduce additional handling and improve customer experience, but only when done correctly.

Depending on your equipment and process it may not be possible to switch to carton picking without significant changes. But for newer operations, it can save totes (and dealing with them), time, and money. But if you choose to pick directly to cartons and then ship those at the end of the line, what can you expect in terms of operational advantages? Switching to carton picking can either be a blessing or a curse. Here’s how to make sure your operation is suitable for carton picking, and successful with it if you choose that route:

  1. Make sure picking to cartons is compatible with your equipment and process. If you’re using a conveyor system with diverts or sortation, picking to cartons may not make sense. Mis-routing and carton damage are more likely. This isn’t to say that conveyors are incompatible with carton picking – they aren’t – but you must understand your load and its limits before you proceed.
  2. Stick your toe into the water. Start with a single line or product mix, where it’s simpler to pick to carton. As your pickers learn the ropes, expand the process to more complex orders and more picking lines. If you can do it without increasing errors the first time, the odds are that you can expand the program successfully.
  3. picking to cartonsKnow your product sizes. Your WMS or other information systems must have good information on pick sizes. This helps you avoid repackaging  when the carton size chosen for the order isn’t the right one.
  4. Your best packers should be first “at bat”. When the order is in front of the packer at the end of a line, she can gauge the order, all of its contents, and the necessary carton to pack it as efficiently as possible. Picking to the carton is essentially picking on the fly, and if it’s passing between pick zones, different pickers will be adding to it. Order mix is going to play a part. The first picker/packer must make good decisions when the carton is selected to prevent downline problems. Using people who can envision the entire order in the early stages helps to alleviate these problems.
  5. Simple is more likely to work better. If you have a high volume product grouping with minimal size variances, picking to cartons is going to deliver very well for you. If you have a large mix of products and product sizes, then you’ll need to constantly analyze your product mix to be sure you can execute carton picking as new SKU’s come into play.
  6. Pick the “base” (larger, heavier) products first. The arrangement of picking areas has to be configured so that larger items are picked first in the process, so they can be packed into the bottom of the carton. You don’t want your pickers re-arranging the order as it moves down the line in mid-pick. Heavier, bulkier home items should picked first before moving into things like apparel, accessories and footwear.
  7. Watch for crushed case edges. You’re handling your cartons much more often, so the chances that they will get crimped, torn, or squashed will increase. If necessary, you can utilize higher-quality cartons to alleviate this issue.
  8. Consolidate box sizes. This is a good idea, anyway as it reduces costs for carton re-ordering and storage. If you can cube all of your products to fit into a range of carton sizes, you greatly simplify the process.
  9. Speaking of carton sizes, keep your conveyor in mind. Every carton you intend to convey must work on all of your transport conveyors. If you’re using roller conveyors, box widths should be 2″ less than the roller width. You should always have at least three rollers under each carton in a roller system to prevent tipping and jams.
  10. Factor in all the costs. Eliminating or reducing a packing department and its associated costs sounds good, but the pitfalls are real. You should understand your carton, product, and order sizes, and the effect future changes may have on those. You may need specialized over-conveyor workstations.  The cost of carton fill is very real, and if this results in looser cartons, then that cost can increase.  Some items that were previously in poly bags might have to be cartonized prior to being packed.

In all, it’s best to design your operations as a carton pick or tote pick from the very start, but it’s also possible to switch to either as your needs change. Mixing the methodology is always acceptable, as you can squeeze savings from more uniform, less challenging pick lines and retain the advantages of pick-to-tote for complex picks.


Scott Stone Cisco-Eagle's Director of Marketing. He has over 25 years of experience in the industry.