Packing is a critical operation in any order fulfillment operation, but, often, it is overlooked as a function that can contribute to the overall success of the enterprise.

No matter how efficient the order picking process, inefficient packing can make the money spent on advanced inventory storage and retrieval systems a wasted investment.

What can go wrong with packing operations?
• Mis-pack — wrong item shipped to customer
• Mis-label — item shipped to wrong customer
• Damaged item shipped
• Wrong sized box or container resulting in shipping damage
• Incorrect or missing documentation

All of these conditions have a negative influence not only on customer satisfaction, but also on the overall efficiency of the order fulfillment operation.

What does it take to improve these systems and make them compatible with order picking and fulfillment systems? How can you optimize the packing process to improve efficiency?

An approach to addressing these conditions is through automation. Packing process operations that lend themselves to automation are weighing, labeling, package or carton building, document insertion, and sealing. Automating the packing process can reduce labor costs, reclaim floor space for value-added operations, reduce mis-sorts and incorrect labeling, and improve efficiency and throughput to allow extended order cutoff times. Automating the packing operation also allows distribution centers to reduce seasonal workforce fluctuations while maintaining shipment timetables.

Choosing the Right Time to Automate
When is the right time to consider pack station automation? There are formulas based on the number of packages processed per day or per shift, and these are useful in broadly determining the need for improved pack station efficiency. However, determining the need for automated systems is usually an individual company choice that should be determined when one or more of the following conditions exist:

• Outdated equipment and/or processes that create a noticeable packing and shipping bottleneck.
• More order packers than order pickers.
• Jack-of-All-Trades packers.

Outdated packing equipment, inefficient package handling processes and inexperienced or poorly trained staff can significantly reduce order fulfillment efficiency. This situation becomes clear when orders consistently miss carriers’ pick up times. At that point, management has to decide whether to add specific automated equipment or systems, modify processes, improve training, or add personnel.

In general, a distribution center should have more order pickers than packers. If the reverse is the case, the system is back end loaded and is not operating at peak efficiency. Automated systems can reduce manpower requirements and improve efficiency.

Jack-of-All-Trades packers, as the name implies, do everything. They unfold boxes, build boxes, transfer inventory, perform quality control checks, handle fragile packages, weigh packages, insert packing slips, documentation and literature, prepare and apply labels, and often hand seal packages. This approach isn’t efficient, even in a small, low volume operation. Automation can make packers more efficient by letting them concentrate on fewer processes, and it can reduce labor requirements at the same time, allowing some packers to be transferred to more value added operations.

Simple automation of packing operations can contribute significantly to an improved bottom line. (Figure 1). Generally speaking, in manual facilities, as sales increase the cost per unit increases while profit remains the same. In automated facilities, as sales increase the cost per unit drops, increasing profitability.

Low Lying Fruit
While every operation in the packing process can be automated, the one thing every distribution center should do, if they do nothing else to automate the process, is install in-motion weighing and automated on-demand labeling. Not all orders can be verified by weight, but when more than 50% can be, these systems should be installed.

Fully automated, standalone systems are inexpensive and easy to install in virtually any packing line. In operation, orders are validated and verified for accuracy very rapidly. If the order is within the set tolerance, it automatically goes to labeling and shipping. If the weight is outside of the tolerance limit, the order can be visually inspected. 

Systems are available than can handle a package every second or second and a half, or 20-30 boxes per minute. Automating the weighing and labeling operations can reduce the time and labor requirements for packing, checking, replenishment and rush picking while reducing shipping costs. The Return on Investment (ROI) is very fast, in some cases less than a year.

Packing Is Not an End of Line Operation
Even though the packing and shipping operations physically occur at the end of the order picking and fulfillment processes, intelligent pack station design requires that packing and shipping be approached holistically and considered as a fully integrated order picking and fulfillment operation. 

Start by looking at order flow. How are orders reaching the packing operation, uniformly, or in balanced or unbalanced zones? In most medium to high volume distribution centers, orders generally reach packing in unbalanced zones. If that’s the case, the orders must be buffered or consolidated prior to being released to the packing operation. The faster the order picking speed, the more buffer is required.

There are several ways to buffer or consolidate orders. Conveyor systems are by far the most common. Conveyor systems are designed to handle high and medium volumes and offer high velocity. For very high volumes and high velocity operation, cross belt and tilt tray systems may be the most appropriate. 

For low- to medium-volume applications or anyone who has the need to have up to hundreds of orders open at any one time, horizontal carousels or reverse pick to light flow racks may be the answer to buffering and consolidation. Horizontal carousels provide reduced labor, flexible size, modularity, minimum floor space requirements and low acquisition cost, but limited velocity. Flow racks offer high velocity and low installation cost, but require a floor space commitment and more labor.

Sortation is another process to consider. Every order is NOT the same. Practically speaking, orders that contain fragile items, large orders, very small orders, one line orders, or heavy items should be handled in the packing operation differently from standard weight and size orders and differently from each other. 

A sortation system, usually a conveyor, identifies, separates and conveys boxes or totes from the main conveyor line to a specific station set up to handle a specific type of order. Simple rules set up in the WMS software can intelligently route orders to the proper pack station using a sortation system. This approach to pack station design can result in higher shipping volumes, extended cutoff times and less labor overall.

Handling Paperwork
Automation of document printing and insertion offers another means of improving packing throughput and labor efficiency. The manual placement of order documentation is a labor-intensive operation and one that is subject to error. It’s much better practice to have packers focus on order accuracy than document insertion. 

An automated printer and inserter can print customized company documents including manifests, invoices, operating instructions, and return information and labels. After printing, documentation for that order can be folded and inserted into the container. Every order is double scanned and verified to assure that the correct documents are printed and placed correctly.
Automated document insertion can reduce costs and also provide a foundation for profitable third party promotional insertions. Many national brands are looking for ways to reach prospects and packaging inserts are a way to do that. It can become a profit center for your operations. 

Fitting Box to Product
Right size packaging is an important consideration in streamlining packing operations. Too many carton sizes take up valuable floor space. Some distribution centers use a set number of box sizes, often three to seven sizes. This is a workable approach with a stable inventory and a WMS program that selects the right size for the specific order.

Another approach is the use of on-demand packaging systems. On-demand packaging creates right size boxes and cartons as they are needed, reducing corrugated consumption, box and carton storage costs. Shipping costs are also reduced due to the reduced cubic volume. Product dimensions can be input manually, with a scanner, or through a WMS program. Individual boxes or cartons can be created in just seconds. On-demand packaging also offsets customers’ “too big a box” complaints.

A separate sealing operation can also help improve packing throughput and overall system efficiency. Sealing machines are available in uniform or random carton sealing configurations and in fully automatic and semi-automatics models. Uniform machines are purpose designed to seal cartons of one size. Random sealing machines handle cartons of varying sizes. A fully automatic machine folds carton flaps before tape is applied. A semi-automated machine requires that an operator fold the flaps prior to sealing.

As with any of the technology associated with automating the packing operation, the choice of equipment depends entirely upon the goals of the distribution center business plan. Remember that one of the objectives in automating the packing operation is to pay off the investment in automated order picking technology.

Intelligent pack station design helps justify the investment in automated storage and retrieval systems. Use intelligent routing, through WMS software, to optimize pack station operation. Design some pack stations for 80% of packing needs, and build other stations for unique needs such as weigh check, fragile items, one line orders, and credit checks.

When considering automated pack station equipment, use the following guidelines:

• Document and discuss specific automation requirements
• Involve operators and technicians in the discussion 
• Determine labor, space, throughput and other critical requirements, such as sustainability
• Conduct risk assessments
• Consider flexibility for business growth

Using the right pack station automation can result in a very fast ROI based on reductions in labor, space, shipping, re-shipping and material costs.