Options for socially distant order picking. As easy as WMS

Options for socially distant order picking. As easy as WMS

27 January 2021

  • social distance wms


As a result of Coronavirus, shoppers have shifted to the web in droves. According to the ONS (Office for National Statistics) 36 per cent of retail sales were made online in November 2020, compared with 19 per cent in February of the same year. Traditional retailers have been scrambling to secure new warehouse space because, as calculated by one property investment company, every extra £1bn spent online requires almost an additional 900,000 sq ft of logistics space. That’s a lot of extra warehousing needed and much of it will be greenfield, with little or no existing automation, like a warehouse management system (WMS).

At the same time as consumers’ transition to e-commerce, many warehouses have experienced exceptionally busy periods due to the national lockdowns. Across the world, demand for goods in some sectors – food, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, household and DIY goods, gardening tools being good examples – has skyrocketed. People’s lifestyles have changed and while many workers are being asked to stay at home to keep safe, most warehouse operatives can’t and must be onsite. This puts them in a more exposed position. It can be challenging to socially distance whilst managing safe working practices in a busy distribution centre or production environment. That’s before any mention of peak periods and regular order throughput targets being met. Between 6 and 14 January, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) received 3,934 complaints relating to coronavirus and took enforcement action in 81 cases. Some of them were inside warehouse environments.

Although it can be difficult to entirely eliminate any risk of getting infected with coronavirus, keeping key workers like warehouse operatives safe can be made a lot easier with a WMS. For instance, in most busy e-commerce warehouses, 80% of the fastest moving products are stored in 20% of locations.

Spread fast movers around the warehouse

It is common practice to keep these ‘winners’ near to the most effective picking locations at the front of the warehouse, close to the outbound loading bay and packing locations. This makes it fast to pick orders, but it means the majority of activity in the warehouse is concentrated into these areas – which compromises social distancing and creates bottlenecks. What if there was an efficient way to spread fast moving items all around the warehouse, with an equal number of the winners down each aisle for example? Warehouses could very easily implement social distancing – spreading fast moving lines around the front face of the warehouse – and then controlling how many pickers are in a certain area at any given time automatically. A WMS can do this, because it assigns a location to every item and can calculate the safest and most efficient pick route for each operative, so they naturally avoid bumping into one another.

Socially distant ‘pick and pass’ order picking

That’s just one option, there are other socially distant process options for order picking. Using a warehouse management software technology, warehouses can also introduce a ‘pick and pass’ process. This works like a chain, with each operative assigned a particular segment of the warehouse to work in. Using ‘pick and pass’ the individual picks their stock orders in their own aisles before passing the part-finished orders onto someone else. Three or more people could be picking a single larger order, but safely in different parts of the warehouse and social distancing. All the order parts are then assembled together in a central consolidation or marshalling area, where workers spaced well apart can safely complete the customer order by combining the different pallets or e-commerce orders.

Author: Eric Carter, Solutions Architect at Indigo Software