What is optimal shipping pick & pack system
December 11, 2008 7:32 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone suggest an optimal layout for a pick & pack operation in a shipping warehouse? Does it make sense for each worker to build a box, pick the items, pack them, tape up the box, and label it, or is some kind of assembly line operation better? The typical number of items is around 5, and they are picked mostly from about 10-20 most popular items. I'm thinking of a five-person operation for assembly: 1. Build boxes and provide next person in line with right size box for the particular order. 2. Pack bigger/heavier items which are near this person 3. Pack medium size items which are near this person 4. Pack small items which are near this person 5. Seal boxes and label
posted by Dansaman to Work & Money (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I worked in a place that had a warehouse operation near the offices. They had pickers and packers. The pickers would pick items according to the order into a large reusable plastic bin, these would then go down huge conveyor systems to where the packers were. The packers each had a variety of boxes at their station and would build the box according to the order.

During Christmas they would have us office workers help in the warehouse. I picked and packed and this set-up made sense. For some orders I don't know how I would have known what box to use unless it was picked first.
posted by pokeedog at 7:42 AM on December 11, 2008

I worked in programming for two different companies which had warehouses. During holiday season at one of them, I was "volunteered" along with other office staff to help in the warehouse. The system I saw that worked well was to have different people doing the picking and packing.

Some of us would run around the warehouse with our little trays and pick the items, then bring them to the packing station. I'd leave my tray with the packer for handling, and then go off and get another picking sheet, lather, rinse, repeat.

When I was packing, I'd fill my package and double-check the items. Most of the items were shipped in bags, not boxes. The boxes we used were small enough that I could put them together quickly at the packing station as needed. Labels were pre-printed, as were the picking sheets, shipping invoices/inserts, etc. I'd pack it up and put it on a conveyor for the scales and postage/UPS/FedEx.

Since the cost of shipping varied depending on package size and weight, that was handled by a separate person at another station, using equipment provided by the shipping company.

This was for a larger operation than yours, with several dozen people in the warehouse shipping department sending out a few thousand packages a day. Obviously you'd need to scale this down for your staff, your assortment, and your package volume.
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:52 AM on December 11, 2008

Isn't this the point of Division of Labor? Summary: assembly line.
posted by Who_Am_I at 8:28 AM on December 11, 2008

This is sort of a solved problem; every warehouse I've ever seen has used reusable containers for the "picking" and then sent them to dedicated "packers" who dump the contents into shipping boxes (along with appropriate loose-fill). Depending on volume it might make sense to have dedicated box-assemblers, or it might do to just have the packers make boxes as-needed, or during downtime between packing.

The limiting factor for warehouse operations (it seemed to me) was the picking speed, not the packing speed, so it makes sense to not burden your pickers with tasks like box-assembly. Better for them to just grab a container, pick the order, drop off the container to the packers, grab another container, etc. A whole lot of warehouse optimizations basically amount to making the pickers more efficient (with handheld bar-code scanners, wearable computers, etc.).

There are hundreds of books and even whole courses (heck, probably whole degree-granting programs) on this topic, so there's almost certainly a large body of knowledge specific to whatever industry and type of warehouse you're in.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:38 AM on December 11, 2008

I work for one of the largest catalog retailers in the US

Our pick/pack operation is basically as described above. We have pickers who pick and packers who pack. Pickers pick into reusable containers that are sent via a conveyor belt to the packers. Packers pack, and send their packed boxes on down the line.
posted by anastasiav at 8:43 AM on December 11, 2008

I base this not on having seen people packing things, but on having worked lots of jobs packing things back when I was too much of an idiot to use my education. It depends:

Large product ranges and always very busy - break it down into constituent parts, though mostly you don't need anyone making boxes up (unless the pace is incessant) as this is easy and fast to do once people get in the swing of it.

Small product ranges, small items - boxes of the stuff near the packers and an order dealt with by one person. Once the person is up to speed they will know from glancing down the order what size of box they will need and the best way to pack the box to make everything fit (making a box up with a tape gun takes maybe 15 seconds once you've done it for a while).

If the operation is fairly small, with a small-ish product line then making each order a one-person job generally gets it done most efficiently.

And yes, I am a blur on Christmas Eve for about ten minutes.
posted by mandal at 10:09 AM on December 11, 2008

Welcome to what I do for a living! There really are a lot of variables that need to be defined before this can be answered. What's the pathing/walk distance like for the active pick area? How does the pick area get refilled? What are you using to generate your orders and what's the volume like? Based on what I know from your description and assuming the product is in a single line of racking/shelving I'd have 1 person that makes boxes/preps them with labels, assign a picker per 10 feet of shelving, and have the pickers pick-and-pass to fulfill the order, and have a person on the end responsible for dunnage and sealing.
posted by nulledge at 5:31 PM on December 11, 2008

basically your system design should depend upon your business which ultimately depends on who your customer is... key high level questions are what's the avg. daily order volume and what are annual highs and lows? How much space do you have to work with (obviously space is a fixed cost, so keeping it small is better....)

labor is going to be your biggest cost so the number of people staffed on the line should be flexible relative to volume and the total number of units produced per person per hour should be a key metric

Use as few different box sizes as possible without driving shipping costs through the roof (and pissing your customers off) this will keep your packers speedy although I second what Kadin2048 says about pick as the limiting factor

generally in the operations I've seen a dedicated packer works well past a certain volume point and depending upon cue space, just to give you a sense of what this means in one place I managed we needed a dedicated box maker after about 300 units/hour otherwise this person could stuff, seal and make boxes, in another operation which had a much longer conveyor and less box size variability the magic number was about 1000/hour of course when you rely on cue space it increases your space fixed costs as well as the length of your cycle time which may not be ideal depending upon your customer

it sounds like you are considering putting your packers near specific sizes of material... this is a common way to do it and certainly can help with safety issues as the heavy packer knows what to expect when he lifts his items. Other options to consider are grouping items commonly ordered together, you have a high "line to order ratio" if the avg. number of items ordered is 5 (i've also heard people call this a shipping multiplier btw) but it sounds like there is not that much variability in the types of items that are grouped together as there are 10-25 most common items ordered... these characteristics might lead to some interesting choices about where you store things...
posted by nazca at 10:37 AM on December 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

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