This article originally appeared in the September/October issue of PARCEL.

In this world today, it’s all about speed. From both a personal and a professional standpoint, we are all focused on how to get more accomplished in 24 hours. Companies are noticing this focus and developing tools, apps, and software to help us adapt to this new era of speed. The retailers that win in today’s economy — and the retailers that will be in business five years from now — will focus on the speed of delivery and the expeditious process flow of orders and products through the supply chain.

How many of you have shopped on the internet and found the product you want at multiple retailers? When cost is similar, which one did you choose? Probably the one that was chosen was the one that could be delivered the soonest. The focus this year in supply chain and order fulfillment will be on speed. How do you get the products picked, packed, and shipped in the most expeditious manner? That’s assuming you have the products in inventory, which is another article for another time. But it shouldn’t be overlooked. The importance of inventory accuracy and inventory acquisition is a critical piece to the puzzle.

First, let’s start with the “root.” or beginning, of the order. How much time elapses from the time the order is placed to the time it is received in the warehouse? In some companies, the need for speed doesn’t get acknowledged until the order is released from customer service or accounting (the keeper of the orders). At this point, they may have held it for several days and then expect distribution to get it out the door in 24 hours. Let’s assume that your company has that issue resolved and the only needed fixes are within the four walls of the distribution center.

Fixing Your DC

Once the orders are downloaded into the warehouse, they should be arranged in waves. Hopefully, this process is not manual! The wave could divide the HOT orders or PRIORITY orders so they would get worked on first, which also means they could get the first of the inventory if it is low. Next might be sorting by region, such as international, west coast, east coast, Midwest, etc. If shipping becomes a factor, customers who have requested next-day delivery might be the next sort. However your business works the orders should be done in such a way to give you more efficiency. Then there may be a sub-sort, consisting of one-item orders, like items, non-conveyable items, family order items, etc.

The orders are assigned to pickers. The pickers should be assigned logically versus emotionally. In one facility, the human resource department suggested that they rotate pickers every week to give everyone a chance to work in different areas. The day I was there, the slowest picker was in the fast-moving products. Needless to say, the orders did not get shipped out that day. If you are battling an HR department that feels you should be fairer, like the one above, suggest that the added cost of labor that you require to accomplish this be billed to their department. It is astronomical, and they will do an about face.


Don’t forget about receiving! If you have a software package that can cross-dock or handle immediate demands and you’re not using it, now is the time to start testing this functionality and put it into practice. If you have a multi-line order, it doesn’t make sense to hold the entire order until one item arrives. You could have the entire order picked and staged so when the missing item arrives, the system will direct the item appropriately. In a high-volume, high-throughput facility, this will cut down on congestion and help expedite orders.

Depending on the volumes in your facility, types of orders, and the need for speed, you may want to evaluate some automation in order picking. Order picking is the most labor-intensive place in the distribution center and, therefore, the most costly. Many manufacturers and system integrators have been working on this issue in the warehouse and have some interesting and workable solutions. Of course, everything should have a return on investment and due diligence needs to be done, but in the last few years, exciting new automation has really helped in order picking and packing.

If you are an internet company and demand dunnage and packaging inserts, there are a lot of solutions now available that will also automate this labor-intensive task.

If you need help in adapting your warehouse for speed and don’t have a current budget for automation solutions, get some quick tips this year at the 2017 PARCEL Forum, September 18-20 in Nashville, Tennessee. In the exhibit hall, you’ll be able to talk to vendors that have some of the solutions discussed here. Hope to see you in Nashville!