Can you put something without picking it first?
“PUT THAT DOWN!” You’ve likely heard a parent yelling this at their child at some point in your life. Maybe that even elicited a deeply repressed memory of you running with scissors. In any event, one of the primary goals of a distribution center is to fulfill customer orders as quickly and cost effectively as possible. So, if you’ve already picked the product for the customer, why wouldn’t you want to put it into the shipping carton and ship it to them as quickly as possible? Well, you do want to ship as quickly and cost effectively as possible, and that is why you should consider picking a put system for order fulfillment.
Double handling – bad. No double handling – good.
Well, that was confusing. What do I mean. Few, if any things in life are simple or easy. I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard someone say, “We can’t do that, that’s double handling.” Well, ok, I admit “multiple touches” sounds inefficient. But counting touches is not the way to measure productivity. After all, the least amount of touches would be for one person to form a carton, travel the warehouse, pick all four items (theoretical example here, work with me!), put them into the carton, tape the carton closed, print a label, walk the carton to the shipping dock and put the carton on the trailer. One touch per carton, one touch per piece. But was it the most efficient method for fulfilling the order? Certainly not! The picker could have put carton on a conveyor that transported the order to a pack table where a second packer touched the pieces and carton, finished the order, put the carton onto a conveyor to which a third person touched the carton and loaded it onto a trailer. Three touches vs. one, but we all can see how that took less labor hours. Ok, so now we’ve dispelled the myth that more touches equals less productive.
But what does that have to do with a put system? Suppose you’re a retailer shipping to 250 stores that are 5,000 square feet each. You want full shelves so you ship to each store at least 3 times per week, many of them every day. The combination of store size and order frequency, along with your product size, means that you are not shipping full trailers. In fact each store receives a couple cartons each shipment. Now, as a picker, you could walk through the distribution center 250 times for each store, pick the order to those cartons, pack them and ship them. But as most of us are already aware, picking and packing is typically more than half of DC labor, and walking is often more than half of the pick time. And so anything we can do to reduce travel is a logical first place to improve distribution efficiency. You think about it and realize that 210 of the 250 stores order the same box of product X. So you say, why don’t I just go to where Product X is stored once, instead of 250 times? Then I can bring Product X to an area and put it into 210 boxes. That is obviously more efficient, and that is why you would pick a put system!
Stores or Homes? The put system might get expensive.
That’s great you say, but what about my E-commerce business. Admittedly, shipping e-com orders tends to be more complex than brick and mortar store fulfillment. There is market pressure to ship same day, and so you often cannot aggregate enough orders to get the same pick density that you do with store replenishment. Also, there is certainly no guarantee, in fact it’s unlikely, that a large number of customers will order the exact same four items, unless there is a widely promoted sale. And yes, ad response is a possibility for a dynamic put system for e-com orders. In practice however, it is more likely that to get the benefits of a put system for e-com, more automation – such as a unit sorter – will be required.
There is no one process, system, or solution that fits every distribution or fulfillment environment. Take time to analyze the data of your business. Understand where your business is going in the future as much as possible. And then pick the best system for your unique situation. If you need help, you may want to consider an independent professional engineering consultant with years of experience and no equipment or software bias!
–Matt Kulp, St. Onge Company