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An introduction to the basics of warehouse order picking 

Fulfilment centres are the engine room of the e-commerce boom – picking, packing and preparing high volumes of customer orders for shipment as efficiently as possible. 

Getting orders to customers in a timely fashion is a complex process in which every moving part must function seamlessly. And, as businesses large and small are looking to streamline their supply chains, more people are being drawn into the world of order fulfilment.

This article is designed to provide a simple introduction to order picking and give you the basics you need to have more confident conversations about storing and shipping your products.

What are the most common warehouse order picking methods?

Systems designed to aid the order picking process span the whole range of technology - from the traditional to highly sophisticated levels of automation.

  • Pick-by-paper : the most basic of all order picking techniques, where order pickers work from printed lists.
  • Pick-by-voice :  where the order picker receives information via a headset, leaving both hands free to do the picking.
  • Pick-by light :  based on light signals attached to shelving units that guide the picker to the correct storage compartment.
  • Pick-by-scan : where a hand scanner is used to record both the barcode label on the shelf and the one on the article that is picked.
  • Pick-by-RFID :  which uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags attached to products.
  • Pick-by-vision : where a head-mounted visual display with an integrated scanner enables pickers to identify products, automatically confirms all picks.

Regardless of the size or complexity of the picking process - clearly printed SKU codes, European Article Numbers (EANs) and barcodes are key to fast order picking and accurate inventory management.

What is an EAN?

Retailers selling products within Europe must ensure each item has a European Article Numbering (EAN) - a unique 12-or-13-digit code accompanied by a barcode which allows you to identify and track specific products held within the inventory management system.

The EAN and barcode appear on the product packaging, to be scanned and identified as it passes through the order picking, packing and distribution process.

The purpose of a scannable EAN is to minimise human errors, but in the cases where the barcode is damaged and unable to be scanned, staff will still need to enter the EAN into the inventory management system manually - which causes delays in order processing, creates the opportunity for errors and impacts on productivity

What does SKU mean?

 A Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) is an alphanumeric code that retailers use to track product inventory internally. The code should be unique to your business and provide information on the key characteristics of individual products (e.g. size, type, colour, gender etc.). They usually appear in addition to the EAN and barcode on product labelling.


Why is labelling important for warehouse picking?

The speed of shipping is rapidly becoming a key factor in determining which retailers consumers buy from. 68% of consumers say fast shipping would lead them to place an online order. And for 36% of consumers, 'fast shipping' now means same-day delivery.1

Given such extreme expectations, you can see why every second counts in e-commerce fulfilment - and damaged or missing labels have the potential to hold up operations. Such a fast-paced environment demands a label printing solution that can keep up and give pickers the ability to print on the go with speed and accuracy. 

Should I use barcodes to help with order picking?

 No matter how complex the inventory management system or the picking technology, interpreting and managing the all-important stock, location and product data depends on clear labelling.

For example, in conventional order picking environments with low SKU volumes and a relatively low frequency of orders, voice directed picking may be the technology employed. This relies on scannable barcodes on picking carts, pick assignment sheets, product locations and individual items.

However, retailers with higher SKU volumes and a higher frequency of orders may require more sophisticated automated storage and retrieval systems that deliver the goods to the picker via a carousel or a conveyor.

Despite the increasing use of RFID systems, the humble barcode remains at the heart of the fulfilment process  - not only because of its global ubiquity and the now mainstream use of the 2D barcode (which can carry significantly more information), but also because smaller businesses simply cannot afford the costs of implementing RFID.2

Ultimately, for as long as retailers use barcodes to locate, identify and dispatch goods they will need a solution that will enable them to create labels in-situ.

Find out more about how Brother's warehouse and distribution print solutions can keep your order picking process moving smoothly.

1.    digitalcommerce360.com: "Online shoppers demand same-day delivery" - Mar 16, 2021

2.    supplychaindigital.com: "The Future of Barcoding and RFID" - May 2020

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