Ways to Pick Full Cases Faster, More Accurately and More Ergonomically
Tactics to improve pick rates, safety and organization
Case picking is common in most e-commerce, retail and wholesale distribution operations, so it’s important to understand the best ways to pick cartons from start to finish through a process. Most warehouse operations will need at least some case-picking capacity. Beverage and grocery distributors almost always need a large full case picking function. Since order picking commands a high percentage of distribution center labor costs, finding ways to make it more efficient is critical.
Picking to carts, conveyors and pallets
All case picking operations pull full cartons or other full loads from one place and place them onto a picking cart, conveyor, pallet or other method of transportation in sequential order without “breaking” the case. Where you’re picking to is as important as where you’re picking from.
- Picking to conveyors
- Picking to pallets
- Picking to carts
- Picking to AMRs or AGVs
For cart picks, it’s important to have a logical and intelligent slotting strategy that minimizes the time, effort and complexity of navigating stock aisles. Consider ergonomics, layout, space and product flow when you pick to conveyors.
Generally, full-case cartons are picked from storage equipment–typically, shelving, pallets (either in racks or on the floor), carton flow or automated systems such as ASRS and carousels. Each of these storage media has its strengths, and that initial choice will probably have more impact on picking operations than any other choice you can make. Be sure the storage equipment suits the load, your operation and the ways people interact with it.
Above: cartons to be picked to a takeaway conveyor line directly from pallets in a mixed case/each pick operation. In this instance, carton flow rails present pallets to pickers for inventory rotation. In this type of operation, each lane stores a single SKU.
Case picking ergonomics
When workers are picking full cases, ergonomics always matters. The type of storage, type of picking medium and the pick-to strategy all impact picking ergonomics.
Picking heavy cases: position & locations are key
Heavy cases should always be situated in the golden ergonomic zone between the waist and shoulders. Ideally, workers shouldn’t have to lift these cases at all. When they’re picked from pallets, it’s critical to ensure people aren’t bending down to access the lower layers. Using a pallet positioner or similar technology helps reduce strains of this nature. When they’re picked from carton flow, be sure there is adequate vertical space between carton tops and the pick layer above them. This allows the picker to adjust a hand beneath the carton. Knuckle ends on the carton flow let people more easily grasp heavier cartons for safer picking.
Position heavy cases at a level even with takeaway conveyor lines when possible. This allows pickers to move the case to the conveyor line with minimal lifting and adjustment. In some cases, you can nearly slide the case to the line.
Seconds matter: Slicing a few seconds per pick when you’re picking hundreds of cartons a day can add up to significant time savings and increased efficiency. What techniques, equipment and equipment materially reduce the time to execute a pick?
When picking to carts, workers should pick heavy or bulky cartons before other portions of the order if possible, so that they aren’t trying to arrange the cart as they travel through the picking process.
Fast-moving cases should be situated in easy-access positions in the golden zone, even if they’re not particularly heavy.
Picking technology: light-directed, voice-directed and RF
Each of these technologies can be used in case picks.
- Light-directed picking tends to shine for each-picking operations, but can serve well in some case-picking applications with dense, mixed-SKU storage. These should be relatively higher volume picks to conveyors or other takeaway technologies. Picking from pallets is difficult for light systems unless you have dedicated storage lanes within a rack structure where light modules can be mounted.
- Voice-directed picking tends to be more viable than light-direction because it’s ideal for picking from pallets in high-speed operations. As long as the system can guide pickers to the correct location, voice systems are the best of these direction systems for case picks.
- RF and barcode scanners are a good technology for case picks, even with the disadvantage that pickers must hold the RF gun to scan the carton, then remove it to pick cases two-handed. The speed gained from picking direction tends to offset that lost time.
Pick modules and case picks
Pick modules deployed for case picking offer both storage and picking density. Since the storage systems tend to be versatile, you can segment a pick module between full and split case picks by adding zones for various SKUs. If an item can be picked full or case, you can slot the full and split cases near or directly beside each other. Most pick modules are built with multiple levels with takeaway conveyor lines between storage zones.
To go faster: One way to increase picking speed is to set floor pallet locations for your fastest-moving SKUs at either the start or end of your pick module lines. Done correctly, this will reduce transit times and distances for your most popular picks. It also reduces the time needed to replenish those SKUs and gives you more flexibility.
Pick modules are a tried-and-true method for improving picking operations while conserving floor space. Workers aren’t meandering through the warehouse to find picks, and conveyors can sort and buffer cartons as they’re transported toward shipping.
Scott Stone is Cisco-Eagle's Vice President of Marketing with more than thirty years of experience in material handling, warehousing and industrial operations. His work is published in multiple industry journals an websites on a variety of warehousing topics. He writes about automation, warehousing, safety, manufacturing and other areas of concern for industrial operations and those who operate them.