Packing is a critical operation in any order fulfillment operation, but often it’s 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 the customer
- Mis-label — item shipped to the wrong customer
- Damaged item shipped
- Wrong sized box or container resulting in shipping damage or extra cost
- 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 – allowing 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. Ultimately, 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- Outdated equipment and/or processes that create a noticeable packing and shipping bottleneck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Outdated packing equipment, inefficient package handling processes and inexperienced or poorly trained staff can significantly reduce order fulfillment efficiency.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 tasks which can reduce labor requirements at the same time. This may allow some packers to be transferred to more value-added operations or to picking – resulting in increased throughput.
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.
Figure 1 Automation allows for increased efficiencies creating the difference from manual operations which provides a profit.
Low Lying Fruit
While every operation in the packing process can be automated, the one thing every distribution center should do is install in-motion weighing and automated on-demand labeling. Not all orders can be verified by weight, but when more than 50% can, these systems should be installed.
Fully automated, standalone systems are inexpensive and easy to install in virtually any packing line. In these automated operations, 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 that can handle a package every 1 to 1-1/2 seconds, 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.
Please check back next week for part II of this blog or email email@example.com for a free copy.
Integrated Systems Design – ISD designs and implements highly efficient warehouse and distribution center order picking, packing, and shipping systems. The DREAM Performance Guarantee program helps organizations lock in key metrics and mitigate improvement and automation risk. Call ISD for a free labor, space, and throughput survey – 855-ISD-TODAY or email: firstname.lastname@example.org