Automated Warehouse Picking: What It is & How to Start

In the ever-evolving landscape of ecommerce and supply chain management, one concept stands out as a beacon of efficiency and precision: automated picking. The increasing demand for ultra-speedy order fulfillment, accurate inventory management, and reduced labor and shipping costs have pushed businesses to explore innovative solutions. For those with a keen eye on controlling expenses while ensuring seamless operations, automated picking systems offer a compelling answer.

In this article, we delve into the world of automated picking, exploring what it entails and why businesses are turning to this technology. Whether you are a warehouse manager looking to optimize your fulfillment processes or an operations strategist seeking ways to scale effectively, this piece is your guide to understanding and implementing automated picking.

The world of logistics and distribution is transforming at a breakneck pace, and staying ahead is paramount for businesses aiming to expand their customer base, achieve annual growth targets, and surpass sales and profitability objectives.

Here, we'll cover not only the basics of automated order picking methods but also the steps to implement it successfully and the features to look for in automated picking software. We'll even explore the pivotal role of automated picking solutions, including a subtle glance at how Extensiv, a key player in the field, contributes to this dynamic landscape.

What is Automated Picking?

In the dynamic world of modern logistics and ecommerce, where speed, precision, and cost control are paramount, automated warehouse picking has emerged as a must-have warehouse automation technology. It's the heartbeat of many successful businesses' order fulfillment operations. But what exactly is automated picking, and why are companies increasingly turning to it to optimize their processes and maximize throughput?

Automated picking is the process of using advanced technologies and systems to select and prepare items for shipment in a warehouse or distribution center. In a traditional, manual picking system, workers roam the aisles, manually selecting items from shelves or bins, a process that can be time-consuming and prone to errors.

Automated order picking systems, on the other hand, leverage technology to streamline this operation. It encompasses a range of innovative solutions, from autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to pick-to-light systems, that automate and accelerate the picking process.

Why Businesses Are Embracing Automated Picking

  • Increased Efficiency and Productivity: Extensiv’s 2023 Third-Party Logistics (3PL) Benchmark Report revealed that a staggering 70% of 3PLs experienced rising labor costs in 2023, often relying on human pickers and manual processes as their primary picking method. In light of this, businesses are exploring automated picking solutions to maximize efficiency and productivity. Automated solutions work round the clock, significantly reducing the time required to fulfill orders.
  • Accuracy and Reduced Errors: Precision matters in the world of ecommerce. Mistakes can be costly, leading to returns, refunds, and customer dissatisfaction. Automated picking systems minimize errors and improve order accuracy, making them a preferred choice for businesses striving to increase customer satisfaction.
  • Faster Order Fulfillment: In the fast-paced ecommerce environment, speed is everything. The same 3PL industry report highlights that 54% of companies can pick, pack, and ship an order in less than 60 minutes from the time it's received from the customer. Those who can do it in less than 30 minutes are 1.67 times more likely to experience over 50% profitability growth. Automated picking operations can play a crucial role in achieving such swift fulfillment.
  • Optimized Space Utilization: Warehouses and distribution centers are expensive real estate, and making the most of the available space is essential. Automated picking systems optimize space utilization by efficiently organizing storage areas for assorted items, ultimately leading to cost savings and improved order processing.
  • Reduced Labor Costs: Despite the increase in labor costs, the 3PL industry report also highlights that 64% of 3PLs plan to grow their workforce next year. However, businesses are exploring automation to offset these rising labor costs. Automated picking reduces the need for manual labor in routine tasks, allowing workers to focus on more value-added activities.
  • Scalability: The logistics landscape is evolving rapidly, and businesses are constantly seeking opportunities to expand and add new customers. Automated picking systems provide scalability, enabling companies to meet increased demand without the need for a significant increase in labor or infrastructure.

Automated picking is more than just a trend; it's a strategic move for businesses aiming to thrive in the competitive world of ecommerce. In the sections to come, we will explore how to implement automated picking, the key features to look for in automated picking software, and how businesses like yours can benefit from these innovative solutions. Stay tuned for insights into the future of order fulfillment.

How Automated Picking Works

In our fast-paced, technology-driven world, the term "automated picking" often conjures images of robots scurrying through vast warehouses, efficiently fulfilling orders with remarkable precision. While that's not far from the truth, understanding the intricacies of how automated picking works is key to appreciating its role in modern logistics.

Pick-to-Light Systems

One of the cornerstones of automated picking is the use of Pick-to-Light systems. These systems are designed to streamline the picking process by providing visual cues to warehouse workers. Here's how it works:

  • Light Displays: When an order comes in, a pick-to-light system illuminates the specific location of each item that needs to be picked. This visual guidance reduces the chances of errors and speeds up the process. Workers simply pick the items indicated by the lights.
  • Error Reduction: Pick-to-light systems are renowned for their accuracy. In a dynamic where precision is paramount, these systems help minimize mistakes, making them a top choice for businesses aiming to reduce errors in their order fulfillment.
  • Productivity Enhancement: By simplifying the picking process and minimizing the need for workers to consult paperwork or devices, pick-to-light systems significantly increase productivity. This efficiency is one of the driving forces behind the widespread adoption of automated picking.

Picking Robots (AMRs)

Automated Mobile Robots (AMRs) are another vital component of automated picking. These intelligent robots are designed to navigate warehouses and perform picking tasks with minimal human intervention:

  • Navigation Technology: AMRs use advanced navigation technologies like LiDAR, cameras, and sensors to map their environment and move autonomously. This adaptability allows them to work safely alongside human workers.
  • Dynamic Task Allocation: AMRs are capable of dynamically allocating tasks based on real-time data. If an item needs to be picked, an AMR can swiftly navigate to the location, pick the item, and transport it to the packing station. This flexibility makes them an essential tool for optimizing warehouse operations.
  • Scalability: As businesses grow and experience fluctuations in order volume, AMRs can easily adapt to changing demands. Their scalability and adaptability are crucial in ensuring a seamless order fulfillment process.

Other Innovations in Automated Picking

While pick-to-light systems and AMRs are central to the world of automated picking, there are other innovative technologies worth mentioning:

  • Goods-to-Person Picking: In this model, items are brought directly to the picker. Instead of workers traversing the warehouse, the items come to them, significantly reducing travel time and increasing efficiency.
  • Put-to-Light Systems: Similar to pick-to-light systems, put-to-light systems guide workers to the correct location to place items. This approach is particularly beneficial in processes involving order packing.
  • Voice Picking: Voice-guided picking systems provide workers with audio instructions on what to pick and where to find it. This hands-free approach enhances productivity and minimizes errors.

Automated picking systems are versatile and can be tailored to the unique needs of a business. These technologies are transforming the way warehouses operate, leading to improvements in efficiency, accuracy, and cost control.

How to Implement Automated Picking

The transition to automated picking is an essential step for businesses aiming to enhance their warehouse operations, control costs, and adapt to the dynamic demands of modern commerce. Successfully implementing automated picking involves a series of well-thought-out steps and strategies. Here's a guide to help businesses streamline their warehouse processes and leverage the benefits of automation.

1. Conduct a Comprehensive Needs Assessment

Before embarking on an automated picking journey, it's crucial to conduct a thorough needs assessment. This involves evaluating your current operations, identifying pain points, and setting clear objectives. Consider factors such as order volume, product variety, order complexity, and order fulfillment speed. Take stock of your existing technology and workforce capabilities and anticipate how automation can address your specific needs.

2. Choose the Right Technology

Selecting the right automated picking technology is paramount. The market offers a range of solutions, from pick-to-light systems to autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). Choose technology that aligns with your needs and budget. Make sure it can integrate seamlessly with your existing systems and is scalable to accommodate future growth.

3. Optimize Warehouse Layout and Design

Efficient warehouse layout and design are essential to making the most of automated picking. Ensure that your warehouse space is organized for seamless navigation by automated systems, whether that's robots or conveyors. Create logical zones for different product categories and minimize unnecessary obstacles or bottlenecks.

4. Integrate with Warehouse Management System (WMS) Software

Integration with a robust warehouse management system (WMS) is a game-changer in automated picking. A WMS serves as the central hub for managing inventory, orders, and other warehouse tasks. It enables real-time tracking of inventory levels, streamlines order routing, and helps with demand forecasting. The integration between your automated picking system and your WMS ensures smooth data flow and synchronization, minimizing errors and enhancing efficiency.

5. Implement Effective Sorting and Routing Strategies

An integral part of automated picking is sorting and routing strategies. These involve determining the most efficient paths for items to travel from storage to order picking stations. Algorithms can optimize the routing process, considering factors such as item size, order priority, and minimizing travel time. Efficient sorting and routing are crucial for reducing picking times and improving overall warehouse productivity.

6. Train Your Workforce

While automation can significantly reduce manual labor, your workforce remains an essential component of the process. Training your employees to work alongside automated systems is vital. Ensure that your team understands how to operate, monitor, and maintain the technology. Additionally, empower them to handle exceptions or unexpected situations that may arise during the picking process.

7. Monitor and Continuously Improve

The implementation of automated picking systems should not mark the end of the journey but the beginning of a continuous improvement process. Regularly monitor the performance of your automated picking technology and gather data to identify areas for enhancement. Use analytics and insights to fine-tune your operations, optimize routes, and reduce errors. The ability to adapt and evolve your automated picking processes is key to long-term success.

8. Consider Extensiv Solutions

While there are various solutions available, consider Extensiv as a valuable resource for automated picking. Extensiv's Order Manager, Warehouse Manager, and Integration Manager offer comprehensive tools for managing inventory, optimizing warehouse operations, and streamlining order fulfillment. With a focus on scalability, automation, and efficiency, Extensiv solutions align with the needs of businesses looking to embrace automated picking.

Automated picking is not just a technological upgrade; it's a strategic move to enhance warehouse operations, control costs, and meet the evolving demands of the market. By following these steps, businesses can effectively implement automated picking systems and stay competitive in a rapidly changing landscape.

Looking to thrive–not just survive–in ecommerce? Check out our exclusive  webinar with Rick Watson for actionable insights that will help you stay ahead  in the evolving logistics landscape.

Features to Look Out for in Automated Picking Software

Selecting the right automated picking software is a critical decision for businesses seeking to optimize their warehouse operations. A well-rounded automated picking tool can significantly enhance efficiency, reduce errors, and drive cost savings. Here are some key features to consider when choosing automated picking software:

1. Integration Capabilities

Effective integration is a fundamental feature to look for. The chosen software should seamlessly integrate with your existing systems, including your warehouse management systems (WMS) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. This integration ensures real-time data synchronization and minimizes discrepancies.

2. Item Recognition and Identification

Item recognition and identification technology is crucial for accurate picking. The software should be able to recognize and verify items using various methods, such as barcodes, RFID (radio frequency identification), or image recognition. This feature helps prevent errors in the picking process.

3. Task Management and Allocation

Efficient task management and allocation ensure that orders are picked in the most logical and productive manner. Look for software that can intelligently allocate picking tasks to your workforce or automated systems based on factors like order priority, item location, and employee availability.

4. Path Planning and Optimization

Path planning and optimization are essential for reducing travel time and improving overall efficiency. The software should calculate the most efficient paths for items to move from storage to order picking stations, taking into account factors like item size and order priority. Efficient routing minimizes labor costs and order fulfillment times.

5. Error Handling

Even in an automated system, errors can occur. Look for software that includes robust error handling mechanisms. The ability to detect errors, such as missing items or damaged products, and implement corrective actions is crucial to maintaining order accuracy.

6. User Interface and Ease of Use

A user-friendly interface is essential for smooth adoption and operation. The software should be intuitive and easy to navigate, allowing users to quickly learn and efficiently utilize the system. A well-designed user interface minimizes training time and ensures a more seamless workflow.

7. Safety and Collision Avoidance

Safety is paramount, especially when working with automated robots or machinery. The software should have built-in safety features to prevent collisions and ensure the well-being of both the technology and your employees. Collision avoidance technology, combined with safety protocols, is essential.

8. Support and Maintenance

Look for software that comes with reliable support and maintenance options. Ensure there is a support system in place for troubleshooting issues and receiving assistance when needed. Regular updates and maintenance are crucial to keep the software functioning optimally.

9. Scalability

The ability to scale your automated picking system is vital for accommodating growth and fluctuations in order volume. Choose software that can adapt to your evolving needs and integrate additional functionalities as your business expands.

10. Real-time Analytics and Reporting

Real-time analytics and reporting provide valuable insights into your warehouse operations. The software should offer the capability to generate reports, track performance metrics, and identify areas for improvement. This data-driven approach enables informed decision-making and continuous optimization.

While these features are essential for any automated picking software, businesses should also consider their unique requirements and constraints. Careful evaluation of software options, in line with specific operational needs, will help determine the best fit for the organization. While doing so, keep in mind that Extensiv offers comprehensive solutions that align with many of these features, empowering businesses to streamline their operations and meet the demands of a competitive marketplace.

Get Started with Extensiv

As we've explored the world of automated picking, it's evident that businesses across various industries are turning to innovative solutions to streamline their warehouse operations, reduce costs, and enhance productivity. In this ever-evolving landscape, Extensiv emerges as a compelling option for those seeking to take their warehouse management to the next level.

Extensiv offers a comprehensive suite of solutions designed to empower businesses with complete control and visibility over their sales and fulfillment operations. Whether you're looking to optimize your order management, enhance inventory control, or automate routine tasks, Extensiv has the tools to help you achieve your goals.

By harnessing the power of Extensiv's Warehouse Manager, businesses can experience real-time visibility over their inventory, improve order accuracy, and boost warehouse efficiency. Its mobile-first approach and barcode scanning technology enhance productivity while reducing errors in warehouse operations. For a deeper dive into the top warehouse technology trends for 2023 and how Extensiv can transform your warehouse, we encourage you to explore our gated content here.

For those interested in further enhancing their automated picking capabilities, Extensiv offers an Order Manager that automates routine tasks, integrates seamlessly with multiple sales channels, and provides SKU-level product management. The result is greater control over your inventory, improved efficiency, and the ability to scale your business effectively.

Whether you're dealing with rising labor costs, uncertain supply chains, or the need to meet customer expectations for ultra-fast and convenient service, Extensiv has your back. The extensive integration capabilities, automated processes, and real-time analytics provided by Extensiv can make a tangible difference in your daily operations.

In conclusion, as you embark on your journey to revolutionize your warehouse operations, consider Extensiv as a trusted partner. Our comprehensive solutions align with the latest industry trends and are designed to address the challenges and opportunities presented by the dynamic world of supply chain and ecommerce.

Explore our resource library, or see our guide to the top warehouse technology trends, to stay ahead of the curve in the competitive world of warehousing and order fulfillment. 

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Automated Picking FAQs

What are some challenges associated with implementing automated picking systems?

Implementing automated picking systems can be a transformative step for businesses, but it comes with its set of challenges. First, there's the substantial initial investment required in the technology and infrastructure. Training the workforce to adapt to the new systems can also be a hurdle. Maintaining and troubleshooting complex automation equipment is crucial, and finding skilled technicians can be difficult. Additionally, integrating automated systems with existing warehouse management software and processes can be a complex task that demands careful planning and execution.

What is the return on investment (ROI) for implementing automated picking systems?

The ROI for implementing automated picking systems can be significant. Studies show that companies capable of picking, packing, and shipping orders in less than 30 minutes are 1.67 times more likely to achieve over 50% profitability growth. Reducing labor costs, minimizing errors, and improving operational efficiency all contribute to a healthy ROI when automation is well-planned and executed.

Can automated picking systems be customized for specific warehouse needs?

Yes, automated picking systems can be customized to meet the specific needs of a warehouse. The level of customization can vary depending on the chosen technology and vendor. Extensive integration capabilities, item recognition and identification features, and flexible task management and allocation options are among the features that enable tailoring these systems to a warehouse's unique requirements. It's essential to choose a solution that aligns with your specific operational goals and can adapt to different fulfillment channels, configurations, and strategies, ensuring that your automation investment optimally fits your warehouse needs.

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