Pick and Pack: What It Is and an Overview of the Process
Today we're unpacking everything about pick and pack. This is a hot topic in the world of warehousing, logistics, and e-commerce, especially when you consider the Amazon Prime-ification of everything. As such, if you're a student of logistics, you've come to the right place to understand these fundamental concepts.
Warehousing is a competitive business. To gain market share, warehouse operators along with the greater logistics industry are constantly evolving, adapting, and looking for an edge. This isn't surprising when we consider the global warehousing market is estimated at half a trillion dollars and growing.
The basic functions of warehousing—receiving, storage, order picking, order packaging, and shipping—are essential components to any supply chain. Pick and pack are part of those fundamental concepts that, when you understand them, form the foundation of a thorough knowledge base of the logistics industry.
In this article, we'll provide definitions to key terminology, and we'll include a basic overview of the pick and pack process. We'll also look at how warehousing is iterating, optimizing, and changing. After reading, you should walk away with a firmer understanding of these twin bedrock functions that support the global supply chain.
Let's Peck Away at Pick and Pack
But first things first: let's break the ice with a tongue twister. Repeat the following phrase, as fast as humanly possible. Ready? Go!
"Peter Piper picked a pack of pickled peppers. A pack of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked. If Peter Piper picked a pack of pickled peppers, where's the pack of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?"
Yes, for all the purists out there, I'm aware it should be peck—not pack. Instead, I updated the old tongue twister to better illustrate the core essence of warehousing workflow.
In short, someone produces a good from raw materials and delivers it to a warehouse. Now we must unload the item, store the item, find the right item to pick after someone orders it, pack it correctly, get it on the truck, and make sure it arrives at the customer's door (on time and damage free).
To point out the obvious, the goal is to avoid being Mr. Piper here—so don't misplace the goods somewhere along the way!
The Basic Definitions of Pick and Pack
We've established what success looks like in warehousing, as well as the basic location of pick and pack in the supply chain. Now let's deepen our understanding with some definitions.
- Pick: Picking begins after someone places an order. Picking is the process of locating the proper quantities of each product from its respective location in the warehouse.
- Pack: Packing means placing the ordered items into the proper packaging, along with the appropriate packing materials and documents. (For example, someone might put the item in a bag, which then goes in a box, which is placed on, and then strapped to, a shipping pallet.)
- Label: After the ordered items are packaged properly, someone must label the package. Label information interfaces with a warehouse's technology system. The information on a label will include shipper name and address, customer or consignee name and address, purchase order number, tracking number, bar codes, and so on. Once packed and labeled, the items are ready to ship.
What Factors Drive Decision-Making in Warehouse Operations?
All this seems simple enough, right? The complexity develops from the sheer volume and frequency of the pick and pack process. In addition, the enormous size and shape of some warehouses can add complexity. By shape, I mean that warehouses use vertical space. That translates to very tall storage racking, accessible only by specialized pieces of machinery or robot. To that end, warehouse operations can become complicated enough at certain volumes that a niche industry has developed that allows the entire process to be outsourced to third-party logistics (3PL) companies.
As the world trends away from brick and mortar shopping to e-commerce, the stakes are increasing for warehouse operations. In turn, smart warehouse management focuses on optimization (of floor space and personnel), continuous process improvement, and the many ways technology can improve overall pick and pack efficiency.
In other words, the goal on one hand is faster deliveries. On the other hand, warehouses are looking for the lowest possible overhead costs. If we work backward from those two goals, we see the solution becomes a balanced dance of several factors.
Some Examples of Pick Methodology Used in Warehousing
In this section, we'll elaborate on the mechanics of pick and pack methodology. In other words, these are a few common ways that companies train warehouse personnel to organize and streamline their pick process. According to ShipBob, these are the commonly used terms.
- Piece picking: This is where an order picker handpicks each product for an entire order, one order at a time.
- Batch picking: In this scenario, an order picker will pick a batch or group of several orders during the same trip through the warehouse.
- Zone picking: This happens when an order picker is assigned to pick only in specific zones or areas of the warehouse, and pick only one order at a time.
- Wave picking: It's a combination of batch and zone picking. An order picker will stay within a zone, but that person will pick more than one order at a time.
Bear in mind there are also methods for organizing warehouse infrastructure, floor plans, vehicle traffic, and inventory storage optimization. It's all about saving time, streamlining picker workflow, and maximizing throughput. For example, here are a few common ways to optimize inventory location.
- Place top-selling (most frequently picked) products closest to packing stations.
- Store items that are frequently sold together in groups or nearby locations.
- Arrange the product and inventory from top-selling to low-selling.
In addition to the physical layout optimization, warehouse operators also strive to optimize their warehouse management system and technology partners.
Warehouse Management Systems (WMS)
Technology continues to weave into every facet of logistics and life. Warehouse management systems track products from the time they enter a warehouse to the moment they ship out to the customer. Investing in a warehouse management system is a no-brainer. But there are other types of software that support and integrate with a WMS.
For example, software providers like Vector integrate with most major WMS and allow warehouses to automate certain processes. The key with Vector is their imaging tech and customizability. In other words, Vector grants access to important work in process (WIP) data and documents. These documents are stored in the cloud. The purpose of software like Vector's is to reduce the risk of pick and pack errors. Put another way, Vector will help limit the possibility of Mr. Piper misplacing those peppers. Make no mistake, streamlined processes translate to dollars and ROI.
Beyond that, Vector's electronic bills of lading (eBOLs) are a game-changer. In lieu of the COVID-19 social distancing measures, a simple process change to Vector eBOLs can provide a huge return on risk mitigation. Vector solves a difficult question: Why bring outside drivers into your warehouse? We aren't here to make friends. Instead, Vector transmits all relevant load docs directly to a driver's smartphone. In short, that makes business sense but also translates to piece of mind.
Closing Thoughts and the Spice of Life
Every guru will tell you that the path to becoming a guru (of anything) begins with understanding your subject's fundamental principles. Today, you learned all about one such fundamental concept of logistics: pick and pack. I encourage you to keep looking for opportunities to deepen your understanding of logistics.
One last thing: I love banana peppers on my lunch hour sandwiches. So please, someone find out where Pete left that pack of pickled peppers!
Remember, just keep truckin'—and enjoy the ride!
This post was written by Brian Deines. Brian believes that every day is a referendum on a brand’s relevance, and he’s excited to bring that kind of thinking to the world of modern manufacturing and logistics. He deploys a full-stack of business development, sales, and marketing tools built through years of work in the logistics, packaging, and tier-1 part supply industries serving a customer base comprised of Fortune 1000 OEMs.