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Improving Warehouse Workflow: Techniques For Streamlining Processes  

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Warehouses are the beating heart of any business that sells physical products. But, inefficient processes can clog up that heart and put the entire business at risk. Warehouse managers face huge pressure. They must meet ever-growing demands and with few resources. 

But with the rise of the economy comes the demand for ecommerce. Consumers now expect quick fulfillment and delivery. This has only turned up the heat.  Now, more than ever, streamlining warehouse workflows is a critical mission. 

Where do you start when looking to improve processes and technology? What specific steps can you take to increase productivity, accuracy, and speed? This comprehensive guide covers key techniques for optimizing your warehouse operations. 

Apply An Intelligent Warehouse Management System 

The first and most impactful strategy is implementing different types of warehouse management systems (WMS). A WMS is a supply chain software. It does key warehouse tasks. It tracks inventory, fills orders, and optimizes storage. It also does picking and shipping. It becomes the central nervous system for orchestrating smooth workflows.   

An industrial-grade WMS provides automation, insight, and control over operations for maximized efficiency. The features include advanced reporting. They also provide real-time visibility into stock levels and locations. They also include directed putaway and picking, integrated labeling, and task interdependence rules. These features take productivity to the next level. Workers can handle more volume with greater accuracy.   

For example, systems can assign putaway locations. They do it based on velocity, turnover, weight, and other product traits. This improves storage density. Batch-picking orders and dynamic routing cut unneeded travel in the warehouse. This happens during order fulfillment. Managers also get data on employee tasks. They also get data on inventory KPIs, peak congestion areas, and bottlenecks. This data points to ways to improve processes.  

Making that switch pays off big. It’s a move from paper or basic software to a feature-rich WMS. It delivers exponential returns for fast order fulfillment. It ties all warehouse functions together for workflow optimization.   

Enhance Visibility With Barcode Scanning And RFID  

Once you have a WMS, further efficiency gains come from enhancing inventory visibility. Warehouse inventory often spans hundreds to thousands of SKUs. They must be tracked from receiving through order fulfillment. Items need to be identifiable because they are moving through various warehouse processes.   

Barcode scanning improves identification and tracking compared to risky manual entry. Human errors increase. This happens when employees key in product codes or serial numbers by hand. They do this when receiving, putting away, replenishing, picking, and shipping items. Scanning barcodes eliminates typos and speeds up essential inventory transactions.   

Radiofrequency identification (RFID) provides more inventory visibility. It helps with smoother picking, replenishment, and cycle counting. RFID uses wireless electromagnetic tags. They are attached to products or packaging. They send identifying data to nearby receivers. Workers must scan individual barcodes within line-of-sight. RFID allows instant reading and writing of many tagged items.   

Readers can detect RFID tags without requiring direct visibility, unlike barcodes. This feature works with a WMS. It lets the system track product location and status in real time. It improves verification. It shows you have the right items in the right place at the right time during order processing. 

Optimizing Layouts And Storage Processes  

Inventory tracking technology is linked to optimizing warehouse layouts. It minimizes wasted footsteps and speeds up order turnaround. Careful layouts and logical storage methods improve flow. They use disciplined processes to determine where products go and get picked.   

Experts use strategies like block stacking and tight vertical storage. They also use zone picking, golden zone storage, and cross-docking. We base our use of these on factors. These include inventory speed, turnover, order profiles, seasonality, and product traits. Even small changes can help. For example, fast items are stored near shipping, and slow items are stored in the back. This can improve productivity over a bad layout.   

Create consistent putaway and pick methods. This will help employees develop repeatable, almost automatic habits. For example, fixed locations can be set for where to store incoming stock. This is based on product speed, weight, and size. Also, consider peak aisle capacity and how close the location is to shipping areas. This slotting cuts travel distance to get items later during order fulfillment. It also aids with inventory visibility. Randomized storage increases search times.   

Zone picking assigns certain order pickers to dedicated warehouse zones. They focus on these zones during batch order processing based on the layout mapping. This division of labor helps pickers learn their assigned storage zones well. It helps them pick faster and with less congestion. Cross-training pickers on different zones provide backup flexibility to handle workload imbalances. 

Standardize Warehouse Processes   

Optimizing layout and storage is the groundwork. But, standard procedures bring improvements. Documented step-by-step procedures for essential warehouse tasks to cut variability and instill discipline.   

Create detailed written manuals. Also, visual job aids and checklists should be made. They are for processes like receiving, putaway, replenishment, order processing, packing, and shipping. Give clear instructions on performing actions to promote consistency. For example, provide putaway staff with specific rules. The rules cover where to store certain products. They also cover how many to store before replenishing certain bins.  

Make sure instructions are easy to follow. This will reduce the need for historical knowledge. Workflows depend on a few people who know how things “have always been done.” Disruption occurs when one of them is out sick. Continual refinement also gets stalled.   

Enforce and incentivize compliance to process standards through periodic audits and performance management. Yet, be open to worker feedback. They may have ideas for improving outdated or inefficient procedures on the floor. Use lean methods, like PDCA cycles, for ongoing optimization. They reduce bad variation.   

Boost Labor Productivity  

The above tactics focus on warehouse layout, infrastructure, and processes. But, improving productivity also requires proper planning and better technology.   

Stagger shift start times and break times carefully. This ensures consistent workflow coverage. It prevents critical gaps and congestion points. Avoid having all pickers begin at 8 am, for example. Apply structured breaks to avoid productivity dips.   

Cross-train employees in many areas. These include receiving, replenishment, order picking, packing, and shipping. They are trained based on changes in demand. Build workforce flexibility to reallocate labor hours to bottlenecks. Categorize and document required competencies for each role to simplify cross-training.   

Use seasonal or temporary labor to help core staff. Do this during peak periods like holidays, new product launches, or promotions. Avoid excessive overtime labor costs through better planning.   

Also, use technology like pick-to-light and put-to-light systems. They make assigning tasks easier and speed up productivity. These simple lights guide pickers and putaway staff to items and quantities. They do this without needing constant management direction.   

Install conveyor and sortation systems to make processing faster. Do this if you ship many smaller orders. Automated sorting sends picked items diverted toward packing stations for faster processing. 

Continuous Improvement With Warehouse Analytics   

All the above efforts will greatly smooth workflows. But the job doesn’t end there. Improving processes requires continuously collecting and analyzing data. This finds problems and spots the next improvement opportunities.   

Look at key warehouse metrics. These include units picked per person-hour. They also include order lead time, storage use, and peak congestion spots. They also cover equipment uptime/downtime. Zones and teams handle breakdown orders to allocate resources better.  

Analyze trends over time. This is after making changes like adding a WMS or overhauling the layout. The goal is to validate ROI. Review perpetual inventory accuracy by product line as a proxy for execution issues. Quickly drill into reporting anomalies. Do this to diagnose why Product X has an abnormally high cycle count variance, for example.  

Consider adding sensors and cameras. Also, buckle drop analysis and other smart warehouse elements should be added. These will help you gather richer insights into how the space and its users are used. This data fuels better planning and decision-making. 

Prepare For The Future With Warehouse Automation  

Upgrading processes and infrastructure will bring big productivity gains soon. But warehouse automation is the future. It’s for companies that want very fast, precise, and efficient changes.   

ASRS consists of computer-controlled cranes and shuttles. They can quickly store and retrieve inventory from defined locations without people. This reduces labor needs. It also allows for more items in less space, faster access, and 24/7 operation.  

Robots can navigate warehouses using advanced vision sensors and AI. They move loads and pallets from point A to point B. They also work with order-picking software. This allows for collaborative picking. Robots bring shelves or pods directly to pickers. This automates transport tasks. It lets pickers focus only on high-quality order assembly, not unproductive travel.   

Robotic picking uses machine learning. It powers robots to find and move inventory items quickly. They do so with ultra-high accuracy, over 99.9%. This solves a big bottleneck. It’s caused by relying on variable and inefficient manual picking. This reliance caps order productivity.   

These technologies integrate with warehouse management systems and warehouse execution software. They bring everything together. You can see and manage it all from start to finish. This is true for both automated and manual tasks.

The benefits range from 2-4x productivity improvements. They include better inventory control. They also have cut labor costs by 80% or more. They have tiny 1-2% error rates. They also have faster order times and need less space. Plus, they have better growth and scalability. Automation needs more upfront money. But, it pays back quickly with much better KPI performance

Because of the above factors, warehouse automation is now mainstream. It is not on the bleeding edge. The fast-advancing capabilities, low costs, and high ROI are reasons to consider it. They make it a must for warehouse excellence. It’s a proven recipe for supply chain advantage. It combines optimized physical workflows, data-driven management, and smart robotics. 

In Conclusion  

The workflow optimization techniques help you get more done for less cost. They do this with existing staff and facilities. They use better layouts, strict procedures, purposeful storage, and labor balancing. This, plus inventory visibility systems and analytics, can free up a lot of unused space. The space is in existing buildings and workforces. Automation is the next frontier. But, these ideas come from industrial engineering and process excellence. They still offer the biggest quick wins. They are key for warehouses seeking every edge in efficiency.

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