The traditional way of picking a single order containing multiple items has become an outdated and inefficient model for modern warehouses and distribution centers. The growing dominance of the omnichannel supply chain requires a more flexible and efficient approach to order picking, to keep up with changing demand.

An omnichannel supply chain means that companies must move a higher volume and diversity of products to more locations, with varying delivery times to meet the needs of retailers and channel partners.

Companies must reevaluate their order-picking approach to adjust to these new complexities. It may require completely changing processes, plus introducing new technologies or equipment to support them. For instance, a company that primarily supplied retail locations may have been able to meet demand with case picking or picking at floor level. As it progresses to an omnichannel supply chain, that same company now experiences a SKU-count increase that requires a move to piece picking, and addition of a second layer to the picking layout. In extreme cases, some companies might have to pick four to five levels to access available inventory and keep up with demand.

When evolving their order picking process, companies may consider employing fixed automation or reconfiguring how they use their forklifts. 

Candidates for Fixed Automation

Fixed automation, such as goods-to-person (GTP) systems, typically utilize conveyors, shuttles, carousels or vertical lift technologies. While this type of point solution can deliver dramatic improvements in warehouse density or throughput, it might not be the right fit for every business, facility or application, especially those that must accommodate frequent changes in input or process.

Fixed automation systems are often semi-permanent and might even become part of the assumed infrastructure of a facility. This means an existing facility needs to have enough room to support the added infrastructure, or a new facility must be built. Regardless, either approach will require a higher capital investment that might not fit into all budgets, or even be warranted if the operation isn’t experiencing enough sustained, high throughput over a period of time to realize the return on investment.

In addition, deployment of a fixed automation system in an existing facility can often require significant disruption to warehouse operations. Existing inventory might need to be consolidated in one area, or moved to auxiliary locations, while new fixed equipment is installed. In some cases, the entire warehouse may need to be shut down to accommodate equipment installation and testing.

Fixed automation systems often do not readily adapt to changes in order profiles, production plans or customer behaviors. They may also have difficulty accommodating changes in product profiles, including size, weight, shape and special packaging and handling requirements.

The Forklift Option

For order picking applications where fixed automation isn’t the best option, forklifts can provide a more flexible, proven and cost-efficient alternative. Forklift technology continues to evolve, providing opportunities for enhancing and advancing order picking. Since they don’t require significant investments in infrastructure, forklifts can generally be deployed with minimal disruption to day-to-day warehouse operations.

New technologies are enabling operator-assist features on some forklifts that can enhance the skills and expertise of existing operators, or accelerate the onboarding and training of new ones. Operator-assist features enable users to remotely advance the lift truck during low-level order picking, while using various sensors to safely travel down the aisle to the next pick location. This allows operators to maintain a smooth workflow pattern while picking behind the lift truck. By eliminating the need to step on and off the lift truck platform, and reducing the time required to position the vehicle, these types of operator-assist features increase productivity and reduce operator fatigue.

A misconception many companies may have when looking to evolve their order-picking is that only advanced technology like automation systems will give them the enhancement and efficiency they need. This is not always the case. Depending on the application, there might be an opportunity to utilize a new type of forklift, or use an existing vehicle differently, to improve the order picking process.

Automation alternatives include using a pallet truck with forks that raise and lower for multi-level order-picking applications. This enables operators to adjust the pallet to pick at height to help reduce bending and stretching, which can avoid back and shoulder strain. Another option might be a pallet truck with longer forks, which equips operators to build two or three pallets simultaneously. If even more picking levels are involved, a man-up order picker could be used to enable operators to pick at higher levels safely and confidently.

The key to evolving the order-picking process is often consulting with a forklift provider to identify the equipment and operator-assist features that best fit today’s picking requirements. The provider can also advise what changes or modifications to existing processes, equipment and training might be needed.

As omnichannel supply chains create more order-picking complexity, companies must evolve their processes to address changing demands. While it might be tempting to consider the latest automation technologies, a renewed look at the forklift fleet and available operator-assist features can lead to a simpler but more flexible solution.

Jared Green is director of global sales for automation & emerging technologies with Crown Equipment.