The movement of goods throughout your warehouse space is likely the biggest area of possible cost reduction in your facility. If your product is fairly consistent in size/weight and you have a refined conveyor system moving product throughout the warehouse, there is no reason to read on – for the rest of you…stick around!
Almost all small to midsize distribution centers and manufacturers rely on a forklift(s) to move individual pallets around their warehouse. Typically, with just one pallet being moved at a time, there is obvious opportunity here. Forklifts are great at unloading and loading trucks, as well as placing and picking pallets from rack systems, but are expensive and downright dangerous when driving pallets around a warehouse.
A popular, more efficient solution is to have a warehouse tugger or AGV (Automated Guided Vehicle) pull carts with either a conventional tongue and hitch, or mother-daughter style. The expensive forklift requires a certified driver and is doing what it does best. Meanwhile, the much less expensive, certification-free warehouse tugger or AGV simply runs on its own. It can accomplish the mundane transporting of pallets 2-10 at a time!
Typically, product is shipped and received on pallets where it is then broken down to pick-locations and "overstock" or a secondary full-pallet location. Pickers fulfill orders by pushing a cart to pick either one or multiple orders at a time. This is accomplished by weaving through the rack/shelving system until the order is fulfilled. The cart must then proceed to a packing area. The more time a cart is pushed without product being moved, the more inefficient the process.
Large fulfillment centers with justifiable throughput will often pick pieces in waves and worry about sorting later. The cartons/parts are normally carried by a conveyor to a high-speed sorter that sends product to a specific place until the order is full. It is then packed and shipped. Many cart-pushing operations could benefit from bulk picking, even without conveyor and high-speed sorters. By bulk picking, the picker will pull more product without taking the extra time to specify which order it goes with. When returning to the pack area, a light-directed pick wall (think cubbies with a light) will then guide you where to put each product. This serves as a sorter and can be highly efficient. The Bulk-to-Sort method works extremely well in limited line item orders. Carts can be made towable. Instead of a cart with a full set of orders on it being pushed back to the pack area, consider towing it back to the pick area with a warehouse tugger or AGV using the same concept as pallet movement.
A conveyor must also be detailed further. Above, conveyor to high-speed sorting was mentioned. Conveyors can also carry finished orders to a consolidation area. If the picker is done picking an order, the goal is to get them picking another order as soon as possible. If a conveyor can carry the order via tote or box, the software is leveraged to simply queue up another order (or batch of orders), allowing the picker(s) to remain productive. Conveyors are limited by their fixed configuration and size, but if the products can be conveyed and the volume justifies the cost, conveyor systems are highly efficient.
Consider how your pallets, cartons, and orders move across your facility. Is there a person physically pushing or driving your product? If so, you owe yourself an evaluation.