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Male warehouse worker scanning a barcode adhered to a brown cardboard box as it's moving along a line on a conveyor belt

What are the advantages and disadvantages of manual order picking?

New technologies are pushing warehouse logistics closer towards fully automated order picking processes but it’s not a one size fits all solution. Can the human eye and mind be overlooked?

In our previous blog, we discussed industry 4.0 and how this fourth industrial revolution is promising to change the sector with automation and robot-assisted order picking.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves – in practice, order picking systems in distribution are still 70 - 80% manual. However, there is one main problem for businesses with manual picking: the fact that people make mistakes.

How manual order picking errors happen

We’re only human and there are many reasons for picking errors. However, it is often inattentiveness that causes the order picker to miscount. Or it is due to the incorrect handling of the order picking system.

Far from this being a finger-pointing exercise, it’s understandable that errors occur – there is usually high time pressure and monotony at work, which make it difficult for colleagues to maintain concentration over the entire working day.

However, the consequences of picking errors represent a cost factor that should not be underestimated. They range from having to absorb an expensive, last minute express delivery to the ultimate loss of customers. The avoidance of picking errors is therefore one of the most prevalent research topics in the transportation and logistics industry.

How can order picking errors be avoided in the future?

The solution to avoid picking errors, however, is not to replace humans with machines, but rather to improve cooperation between technology and humans.

One goal of the research from the Leibniz Institute for Labor Research and the Fraunhofer IML in Germany is therefore to advise on how best to develop technological aids for manual picking. Done right, this will make work easier for people on one hand and also prevent picking errors on the other.

And so, the combination of ever more powerful sensors and software is increasingly changing the work of human skilled workers. In short – the industry 4.0 megatrend does not stop at the logistics of the warehouse either.

Why human workers are indispensable to warehouse logistics success

It has been shown that fully automated order picking processes have some fundamental advantages: they reduce people costs, their error rate is almost zero, there are generally no dead times during order picking – and they are able to accelerate the process. Staff costs in particular are an essential factor, since 60 - 80% of storage costs can be attributed to colleague salaries.

However, fully automated systems do not seem to be an alternative for traditional transport and warehouse logistics in the near future nor are they the only facet of industry 4.0.

Staff are ready and able to adapt to new order picking systems. And it is precisely this flexibility that is increasingly required. One key factor here is ‘batch size one’ which is a single-item or a make-to-order production. As more consumers demand custom-made products, the ability to have a one size fits all automated solution is not as viable. A human may, and often does, need to intervene.

Is fully automated order picking out of reach for smaller businesses?

The high acquisition costs of fully automated order picking processes can be a barrier to adoption, especially with regard to overall warehouse logistics infrastructure. Furthermore, the machines are often highly complex and companies can potentially create a strong dependency on the systems. This is not the kind of change with which companies can easily perform small scale tests – it’s all or nothing.

A lot of the decision making in this area comes down to budget – smaller companies without global reach will likely continue to have their goods picked by people for the time being.

Order pickers are here to stay

Ultimately, there is still a long way to go before the image of the traditional order picker is forgotten. The secret to successful digital transformation has always been to find ways of making technology work for humans and not the other way around. Technology will continue to chase human vision and together new efficiencies will be created.

Are you looking for solutions for your picking processes that help make your warehouse more productive? Find out more about our transportation and logistics solutions here.

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