Warehouses live and die on the efficiency of their operations. When an order comes in, there must be systems in place to quickly prioritize the orders, delegate them to workers, pick the items, pack them, and ship them.
Laid out like this, it’s easy to see why a warehouse’s picking and packing process is important. An efficient pick and pack operation uses a workforce efficiently, reduces warehouse waste, and satisfies customers by delivering goods on time.
Planning and executing a pick-pack-ship process is easier said than done, especially if you’re in the early days of your business. But investing time into developing a proper process today can save you a lot of hassle tomorrow.
In this article, we’re going to break down the typical pick and pack warehouse process. We’ll also explain how warehouse layout plays a role in your pick and pack process and how it helps you easily service different channels (like Amazon and Shopify) and adapt to various business models (like direct-to-consumer sales).
What Is the Pick and Pack Process?
If you’re just getting started or evaluating your current operation, here’s what a typical pick, pack and ship process looks like.
The Warehouse Picking Process
First, orders come in through your order management system. A station of your warehouse houses computer terminals where printers produce lists of customer orders, called pick tickets.
The warehouse manager or another employee may grab the pick tickets and prioritize them based on:
- Client (e.g., a high-value client that offers a significant volume of business)
- Delivery deadline (e.g., customers who paid for expedited delivery)
At this stage, the warehouse worker will also review the pick tickets for any special or unusual requirements that need extra attention. For instance, an order may be shipped internationally, which requires extra steps.
Once the orders have been processed (or prioritized, in other words), they are passed on to the pick team.
Members of the pick team use a pick cart to gather items around the warehouse. This large cart with shelves makes it easy for them to grab multiple items at once. Some warehouse teams also use a smaller trolley with bins for picking smaller items.
The worker scans the pick ticket with a hand-held device, which tells them where each item is located in the facility.
Using a pick cart makes the overall process more efficient. Workers don’t walk back and forth from the storage area to the packing area. Instead, they reduce motion waste by collecting as they go and delivering a large volume of packages at once.
This method also protects the health and safety of warehouse workers who don’t have to lift and carry heavy packages across long distances.
Once the worker finds the item, she scans the label on the shelf for the use of inventory management system - an action that automatically updates the inventory records .
When the item is placed on the pick rack, the worker scans the barcode on the rack as well to record the temporary holding location for the item. This ensures the warehouse has visibility over all of its items at all times, which is an important way to avoid loss or theft.
Once all of the items on the pick list are gathered, the worker moves on to the packing process. Depending on the warehouse or warehouse management system (WMS), the next steps may differ, but usually the warehouse worker updates the system to record that the items have been successfully picked and they’re ready for packing.
The Warehouse Packing Process
When it’s time for packing, each item is scanned into the system so the warehouse worker can see any other items that should be packed in the same customer order. This way, workers won’t pack and seal an item only to realize later there are three more items being sent to the same customer.
Once the item is entered into the system, a worker selects an appropriate box and scans the box or enters its code into the system. The warehouse management software prints a packing slip and, if the warehouse has a label maker, an address label to be affixed to the box.
Next, orders are shipped out. Every warehouse has a cut-off time for outbound deliveries. For instance, if the cut-off time is 11:00 A.M., any orders received before 11:00 are shipped the same day while any received after that cut-off aren’t guaranteed to go out that day. The warehouse then works with its carrier or its regional/national post to deliver packages.
Next, workers place orders on separate pallets based on carrier and mail status. For instance, UPS ground items may go on one pallet while expedited FedEx packages go on another. At the end of the day, shipping carriers pick up their pallets at the shipping dock.
Some warehouses include a quality control (QC) section to double-check orders. In this step, orders are lined up and workers scan the original pick ticket. The items that should be in the order appear on a monitor with images so workers can quickly confirm the right items have been picked. Once order accuracy has been confirmed, the items move on to the packing station.
How Your Warehouse Layout Impacts the Pick, Pack and Ship Process
The most efficient pick and pack fulfillment centers maximize the space they have. That doesn’t mean they pack as much stuff as possible into every corner of their facility.
It means they’re intentional about how they use their fulfillment centers space, how items are arranged within the warehouse, and how their workers move around it.
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Most warehouses provide dedicated areas for storage, packing, and shipping to facilitate something similar to an assembly line. Warehouse pickers and packers pick multiple orders and transfer them over to the packing station, which then transfers items over to the shipping station.
A good warehouse layout design plays an important role in the pick and pack operation since it will dictate the way workers move around the warehouse, impacting fulfillment times.
On top of using a good layout, keeping a clean, orderly warehouse makes it faster and easier to execute warehouse processes. Using dedicated sections for storage, quality control, picking, packing, and shipping is straightforward if the warehouse is kept neat and organized.
As an example, one way warehouse managers can optimize their layouts for more efficient picking and packing is by placing frequently ordered items closer to the packing area. This way, they minimize the amount of walking their workers do, thereby reducing fulfillment times.
How Walking Path Optimization Impacts the Picking and Packing Process
Earlier, we mentioned how a pick cart can help minimize motion waste. Rather than walking to and from the packing area, carrying one item at a time, warehouse workers pick several items at once using the cart.
A pick cart is a great start, but it isn’t the only way to reduce motion waste. Oftentimes, warehouse workers are forced to be inefficient in their movements because of the layout of the facility. Warehouse managers who are passionate about improving their operations can use walking path optimization to use their workers and their space more efficiently.
One popular approach is called the “ant colony optimization algorithm.” It’s based on the way ants search for food: They take off in several directions and leave pheromones in their wake as they travel to and from the food source.
Eventually, the rest of the ants choose the path with the highest concentration of pheromones since this has been identified as the most efficient path toward food.
Warehouse managers can do something similar with their workers. They can direct workers to take off on random paths, while tracking and sharing their chosen paths in real time through mobile devices.
This data can be used to identify the most efficient path. While this optimization activity requires quite a bit of work, the payoff may be justified by the size of the warehouse and the number of orders picked and packed per day.
Another option is the “organized chaos” approach famously used by Amazon to facilitate Amazon’s pick and pack operations. Most warehouses create dedicated locations, shelves, or bins for every item within the warehouse, which makes sense since it’s easier to find the items during picking.
But for a company like Amazon that sells so many different items, it would be inefficient to dedicate a specific location to every item.
Instead, Amazon places items anywhere. During the putaway process, a warehouse worker may place a box of cereal next to a box of batteries. He scans the shelf location and scans the item to store the unique location in the system.
Later, when another worker needs to pick a pack of batteries,instead of crossing the entire warehouse to a “battery section,” he can check his handheld device for the pack of batteries closest to his current location.
How Different Pick Methods Can Impact the Pick and Pack Process
Warehouse managers choose from a number of order picking methods based on their business model and resources. The picking methods they choose can significantly impact the overall efficiency of their warehouse’s pick, pack and ship system.
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The exact pick method a warehouse manager uses typically depends on the maturity of the warehouse, the number of orders it processes, and the types of goods it holds.
Pick to Order
This is the simplest pick method whereby workers pick items one by one. They walk to the storage area, find the right item, take it to the packing area, and then start again. While it’s an easy method for new businesses and smaller warehouses, it doesn’t scale well.
This method de-aggregates orders. In a warehouse where there are toothbrushes, toothpaste, and dental floss, the warehouse worker doesn’t pick hybrid orders one at a time (e.g., 1 toothbrush, 1 tube of toothpaste, and 3 packs of dental floss per order).
Instead, workers pick all of the toothbrushes, all of the toothpaste tubes, and all of the dental floss packets at the same time. Items are then sorted by customer order in a separate staging area.
This method works best for warehouses with several SKUs and multi-item orders.
Wave picking is similar to batch picking, but with a time-sensitive component.
In the wave picking method, the WMS creates intervals or “waves” tied to time-based elements like the transportation schedule or customer delivery deadlines. A list of picks is then assigned to each wave or interval.
Wave picking is one of the most optimized ways to manage picking in a warehouse since it takes factors like shipping schedules and labor into consideration. That said, it does take time to plan, organize and begin executing. Plus, it can’t be done manually - to execute wave picking properly, companies need a warehouse management system to support their efforts.
Also called “pick and pass,” zone picking is an amped-up version of batch picking. Rather than moving through the warehouse, workers stay in one location.
Carts and bins move through the storage area and workers in each zone pick the orders needed for each bin.
If an order doesn’t need anything from one zone, the cart or bin simply moves on. This method has the benefit of reducing motion waste, since workers remain in one location.
With cluster picking, workers use multi-tote or multi-bin contraptions to collect items for multiple orders. With this method, workers make fewer trips while fulfilling a greater number of orders.
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How an Excellent Pick, Pack and Ship Process Supports Different Business Models
In a modern e-marketplace, more and more warehouses are servicing new, and multiple, business models. In the past, warehouses traditionally operated on a business-to-business (B2B) model where they would hold and transport wholesale goods to retailers.
Today, the internet has provided more commercial opportunities, including the chance for warehouses to sell directly to consumers. (Notably, this poses a risk since their retail customers may view them as competition.)
E commerce pick and pack warehouses can also store and distribute orders from sites like Amazon and Shopify. While these marketplaces present a lucrative opportunity for warehouses and wholesalers, many also have strict requirements. For instance, if Amazon accepts your warehouse into its Amazon Seller Prime program, there are strict service level agreements your business must meet (e.g., on-time delivery requirements) in order to retain its membership. A great e-commerce pick and pack process helps warehouses meet these standards.
An Efficient Pick and Pack Service Can Make a Tremendous Difference In Your Warehouse Operations
Most warehouses have one main objective: Get their goods to customers intact and on time. To do this, they need rigorous systems within their facility and a way to maintain visibility over the entire warehouse. A warehouse management system helps them do this by capturing all of the data recorded at different stages of the pick and pack process to ensure order accuracy and that items aren’t lost or stolen within the facility. The WMS also uses the data to guide workers on the most efficient ways to execute picking and packing tasks.
Once a proper foundation is set, warehouses can continue to make improvements to their pick and pack services, including adoption of more sophisticated pick processes, embracing walking path optimization, and improving their warehouse layout.
Written by Ruthie Bowles
Ruthie is a content marketing consultant for Logiwa. Her specialties include small business development and inventory management.