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Automated picking in warehouses: what are the potential gains?

In logistics warehouses, automated picking helps optimize and accelerate the order preparation process. Robots and mechanized systems pick items automatically, boosting productivity and allowing orders to be processed at speeds and within time frames what would be impossible with manual processes. In turn, this helps to cut costs and increase customer satisfaction. But this approach is not recommended for all logistics sites. What are the main automated picking systems? What role does the warehouse management system (WMS) play in warehouses that have opted to use mechanized systems and robots for picking?

The importance of picking in the order preparation process

Picking is a key process in logistics warehouses. It involves collecting all the items that make up an order from various storage locations, in the right order and in the right quantity, for subsequent grouping, packing, and shipping.

Whether manual or automated, picking has a direct impact on operational efficiency within a warehouse—and on customer satisfaction:

  • Productivity gains: with an efficient picking process, more orders can be processed in a shorter space of time, thereby reducing delivery lead times.
  • Operational efficiency: a better-organized picking process helps shorten the time needed to collect items, make better use of available storage space, and minimize operators’ movements.
  • Customer satisfaction: picking errors can lead to customers receiving the wrong goods, or to orders being shipped with items missing—with obvious implications for customer satisfaction. What’s more, the resulting returns management and transportation flows generate additional costs and are harmful to the environment.

 

What are the potential gains of automated picking?

Automated picking—i.e., picking performed by robots or mechanized systems—can deliver significant gains when it comes to productivity, reliability, safety, and operator comfort. The potential benefits of automation depend on several factors such as order volumes, warehouse size, and the types of products stored.

 

A productivity boost of 20–50%

Automating the picking process dramatically reduces the amount of time needed to prepare and process orders, since robots or mechanized systems can pick items much more quickly than human operators. As a result, more orders can be prepared each day, leading to shorter lead times.

 

More efficient and reliable order picking

Automated picking makes order preparation flows more efficient and standardized. Robots and mechanized systems can pick products with a higher degree of accuracy, and are capable of repeating the same tasks again and again without making mistakes. Automating the picking process therefore significantly reduces the number of order preparation errors—by as much as 95% in some warehouses.

 

Improved safety and working conditions for operators

An automated picking process significantly shortens the distance operators need to travel within the warehouse, as well as reducing repetitive movements and the physical strain of carrying heavy loads. As a result, it reduces the burden of work on order pickers, improves safety, and limits the risk of musculoskeletal disorders.

 

Logistics cost control

Every company—according to its circumstances—needs to strike the right balance between upfront investment and medium- and long-term savings. Automated order picking has a proven track record in cutting costs in the following areas:

  • Reducing costly order preparation errors
  • Increasing picking productivity
  • Reducing labor costs
  • Enabling real-time inventory checks
  • Optimizing the use of floor space

 

Is it a viable solution for every warehouse?

According to the analyst firm Gartner, 96% of companies are already using, or plan to introduce, automation or mechanization solutions in their logistics warehouses within the next two to three years. Automated picking is recommended when:

  • Order volumes are high, as a way to boost productivity and reduce order preparation lead times.
  • The warehouses is large, in order to shorten the distance operators have to travel.
  • The products are large or heavy, to reduce the physical burden on operators.
  • The products are fragile, as a way to limit the risk that products could be damaged.
  • The work environment is challenging, such as in chilled or temperature-controlled warehouses.
  • Business is growing and there is a need to increase storage density in order to boost logistics capacity without having to build new logistics sites.

 

Examples of automated picking systems

There are various different options for automating picking, either directly or indirectly. Below are some of the most commonly used systems in logistics warehouses:

  • Voice picking systems: order pickers are equipped with headsets, and a computer-generated voice guides them within the warehouse and issues picking instructions.
  • Picking robots: stationary or mobile robots pick the products.
  • Pick-to-light systems: LED lights and screens guide order pickers to the correct locations and tell them what quantities to pick.
  • Conveyor systems: these systems use conveyor belts to transport items within the warehouse.
  • Sorting machines: these machines direct goods to the right destinations.
  • Shuttle systems: pallets, containers, or cartons are transported within the warehouse on rails, at one or more storage levels.
  • Automated storage and retrieval systems: these warehousing systems automate the storage and movement of goods (stacker cranes for parcels, containers, or pallets, etc.).

 

The WMS: the brains behind automated picking

Whatever automated picking system is used, the warehouse management system (WMS) plays a key role in managing the entire process. Some examples:

  • The WMS software receives information about the orders that need to be prepared and relays this information to the automated systems.
  • It coordinates and orchestrates the order-picking flows, assigning tasks to the mechanized systems, robots, and individual logistics operators.
  • It manages storage locations, which means it knows the exact location of every item in the warehouse and can guide the robots to the right places.
  • It manages the automated replenishment of the automated stock management and retrieval systems.
  • It can optimize pick routes, where this task is not performed by the warehouse control system (WCS) or the warehouse execution system (WES).
  • It tracks the progress of the picking process, including monitoring the number of items picked and order processing times, keeping track of any errors, and more.
  • It manages order preparation processes in real time and balances the workload between automated systems and operators, ensuring that resources are used as efficiently as possible.
  • Last but not least, the warehouse management software collects information from the automated systems and manages stock levels and inventories in real time.

Automated picking: customer case studies

L’Outil Parfait boosts logistics team productivity by 50%

For L’Outil Parfait, the installation of Reflex WMS in a new mechanized warehouse has been a game-changer, boosting productivity by 50%, halving preparation lead times, cutting the number of preparation errors, and reducing transport costs.

Covap reduces order preparation errors by 95% with a mechanized warehouse managed by Reflex WMS

Covap reduces order preparation errors by 95% with a mechanized warehouse managed by Reflex WMS

After deploying a new stacker crane and conveyor system for containers, managed by Reflex WMS, Covap can now process 60 orders at once—compared with eight previously—on two preparation tables, and has recorded a 95% reduction in order preparation errors.

 

La Redoute uses Reflex WMS to manage its Quai 30 mechanized warehouse

La Redoute uses Reflex WMS to manage its Quai 30 mechanized warehouse

La Redoute’s fully mechanized logistics distribution warehouse is managed by Reflex WMS. By embracing automation, the retailer is now able to process twice as many items simultaneously and can pick orders in two hours, as opposed to two days in the past.

 

4murs achieves 50% productivity gains on single, small-item orders thanks to an AutoStore system

4murs achieves 50% productivity gains on single, small-item orders thanks to an AutoStore system

4murs uses Reflex WMS to manage 10 AutoStore picking, replenishment, and inventory robots at one of its warehouses. By introducing the robot system and linking it with Reflex WMS, the company increased its order-picking capacity by 50% and reduced the amount of space needed to store small items.