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Posted by Stephanie on June 26, 2023

Managing a warehouse often feels like making sure that 1,000 pieces of a chess board remain in the right place even when every piece is moving. Your personnel are moving back and forth to pick orders and find items that need to be packaged. If your layout isn’t perfectly optimized, inefficiencies can quickly pop up. Over time, these inefficiencies can grow and may eventually result in worse delivery and picking speeds.

You can resolve many of these issues with the wave picking technique, which is a relatively modern order fulfillment method that’s designed to be lightning-fast. It’s a variation of batch or zone picking. Batch picking allows your fulfillment staff to gather numerous orders in very specific inventory zones. Wave picking is built on the foundation of zone picking but expands further by only completing the order fulfillment process during certain times of the day.

Along with minimizing downtime, wave picking is also effective at improving warehouse efficiency. While it’s not too difficult to implement wave picking in a warehouse, you should understand all that this process entails before you use it. In this guide, you’ll learn about how wave picking works and if this technique is right for your facility.

Truckload of Pallet Rack Beams

What is Wave Picking?

The purpose of wave picking is to effectively optimize the picking order process when orders need to be fulfilled. You’ll need to allocate a storage or inventory area for wave picking. At least one employee must understand how to pick items from these sections. As mentioned previously, wave picking only occurs at certain times of the day. When performing this process, orders will be organized and picked in a large batch that can involve anywhere from 3-12 orders. These batches are referred to as waves.

The wave picking process begins when a worker is given a picking list of different orders that must be obtained and sent to the packing area. In this scenario, the worker doesn’t need to move from one area to another in order to pick individual items. Instead, these items will be grouped together based on set criteria, which could be anything from shipping carrier to priority.

In most cases, the picker uses a tote or cart to collect these goods in just one trip, which saves time and maximizes your resources. It should also make your warehouse appear to be less busy. Keep in mind that wave picking is viable whether you handle a low volume or high volume of items.

In a low-volume warehouse, wave picking will reduce the number of back-and-forth trips that each employee needs to make. In a large fulfillment center, this setup will minimize downtime by making sure that some people don’t need to work throughout slower periods. However, wave picking isn’t right for every warehouse and shouldn’t be used in specific situations.

How Does Wave Picking Work?

If you’re using a 3PL warehouse management system, it’s possible to pick multiple orders at the same time by placing numerous orders in a wave. The size of the wave largely depends on the order fulfillment requirements for your facility. While a wave may only consist of two to five orders, some warehouses place more than 100 orders in a single wave.

Before you implement wave picking in your warehouse, you should know that there are three separate types of wave picking that you can use, which include bulk pick, combination wave pick, and split pick and pack. Each type of wave picking has its own advantages that may help you improve efficiency in your warehouse.

Bulk wave picking gives you the opportunity to pick two or more orders at the same time based on product as opposed to order. If the products you need to obtain are positioned in an area of your warehouse that’s more difficult to access, this picking technique may prove useful. The same is true when you need to pick items that can only be obtained with a forklift.

If you use the bulk pick workflow in your facility, the packing and picking actions are effectively combined into a more efficient process. Once the necessary quantity of a product has been picked and is marked as such in the right software, the sale order transitions to a “packed” status. In this situation, you’re able to print out a new barcode and label that states the product’s name and quantity. At this stage of the process, all picked products are sent outside of your warehouse to be sorted for delivery. You can have these items moved to a delivery truck or dock.

The split and pack technique includes many of the same features as bulk picking. For instance, products are always grouped to be picked at the same time. The main difference is that the packing and picking processes are now kept separate. The primary advantage of using the split and pack technique is that two different teams can complete these actions.

After all the grouped products are labeled as picked by your warehouse management system, you can have the picking team pack these items or have another team perform this action at your packing station. If your facility’s layout has the picking and packing areas in different locations around your warehouse, the split and pack technique may be your best option.

As for combination wave picking, it allows you to group orders by run sheet or customer. These orders will then be picked at the same time. In this scenario, one employee will handle multiple orders from the same customer or a run sheet. These orders will be fulfilled together.

To better understand how combination wave picking works, let’s say that wave picks are assigned to multiple employees. These employees can perform the picking and packing processes while they move through your facility’s layout. This technique ensures that the sales orders are picked and packed by the same people.

distribution center

Pros and Cons of Wave Picking

Even though wave picking accommodates lightning-fast order fulfillment, there are pros and cons associated with this picking technique. The main benefits of integrating wave picking into your warehouse include:

  • It’s a highly efficient method to use when your personnel are picking numerous orders that consist of the same items
  • Less time is needed to retrieve items for orders if multiple orders are comprised of the same items
  • The picking and packing processes can be split, which gives you two opportunities to see what items are being placed in the order

In the event that packers and pickers scan these items separately, you can be confident that this process is secure.

Despite the many advantages of wave picking, there are a few potential issues that you should be on the lookout for. In many scenarios, more space is needed to properly implement wave picking in your warehouse. You’ll usually need an area where you can perform staging for the pack and pick processes.

In the event that you wave pick 100 orders that consist of more than 300 separate items, it may quickly become challenging for the packing team to identify the proper items in the area that’s used for staging. If all orders are different from one another, the primary advantage of wave picking is no longer available. The most significant boost in efficiency occurs when you’re able to pick multiple items at the same time. As such, the effectiveness of this method largely depends on how similar the orders are.

Is Wave Picking Right for Your Business?

Wave picking is a fantastic and highly beneficial tool to add to your warehouse when you want to streamline your workflows and optimize your order fulfillment efforts. However, it’s not the best solution in every scenario. If your warehouse often picks and packs very similar orders, you’ll likely benefit the most from using wave picking in your facility.

You can strengthen this order fulfillment solution by pairing it with an effective warehouse management system (WMS). Even though wave picking helps with efficiency, it also comes with many different variables that must be managed, which include everything from product location and shipping considerations to warehouse flow and product type. Without a WMS in place, humans are unable to quickly take all of these factors into account and create a plan in minutes. Reliable WMS solutions can analyze complex pieces of data to identify the best way to pick orders and create waves.

warehouse safety

Conclusion

Wave picking offers many advantages that aren’t provided with batch picking. You’ll be able to substantially reduce the amount of time and resources needed to pick and pack all types of orders. Before implementing wave picking in your facility, make sure you create a large enough area for staging between the picking and packing processes. Assess your operations to determine if the wave picking technique can optimize your warehouse workflow and order fulfillment.

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