Big Picture: Why Efficient Sorting Matters
If you want your order fulfillment operation to be successful, then you’ve got to embrace ringing out every possible gain in this area of your business. There’s really no two ways about it: If you’re inefficient at any step in the fulfillment process, then you’re either wasting time or you’re wasting materials, and in both cases that means that you are either wasting valuable resources or missing out on potential profit.
Chances are, you know exactly how efficient you are at the big stuff—how competitively you procur your goods, how many items you can churn out in a shift, how many orders you can process in a week. But are you paying attention to the efficiency in your sorting?
Sorting Impacts Everything
Though the word “sorting” might only conjure images of your order processing operations to mind, the truth of the matter is that sorting has the potential to impact every aspect of your business. In fact, if you’re not appropriately sorting at each of these steps then you’re building inefficiencies right into your workflow.
Not buying it? Here are some examples of how you can use sorting each step of the way:
- Return Processing: Items can be sorted out for return to stock or putaway.
- Putaway: Allows trailer loads of mixed SKUs to be received and easily broken down so that items can be palletized with one touch prior to being put in reserve storage.
- Picking: In split case picking there may be many different areas to be picked from, so a sorter is used to route cartons/totes into the proper zones.
- Packing: The right sortation system can be used to consolidate multiple orders within the same pack station so that they can be shipped in the same carton. A sorter can also be used to route split case orders to specific types of packing tasks based on the type of shipping container required (polybags, cartons, gift wrapping, etc.).
- Shipping: Orders can be sorted by LTL, small package, or other carrier or service methods (more on this below).
If you aren’t sorting in each of these steps, then you’re doing all of these tasks manually. And that can only mean one thing: You’re wasting time and money by not embracing the benefits of sortation.
Wasting Time and Money
If you aren’t allowing a sortation system to help you more efficiently pick and process your orders, then that means you’re relying on human workers to perform those tasks for you without the aid of technology that can make the job easier and more efficient. And that drives up your costs on two fronts: You need to pay more workers to perform tasks that could be done with fewer workers with the aid of technology, and you likely have to deal with human error more often than you would with fewer workers.
If your order fulfillment operation doesn’t make use of any kind of sorting, then your workers are picking orders by hand, likely one order at a time. This means that pickers are walking lengthy pick-paths/travel paths and picking orders to carts to then bring back to be processed, packaged, and shipped. And all of this walking, of course, adds up to a lot of wasted time: Walking and manually picking orders accounts for more than 50 percent of the time associated with picking.
If you had a sortation system in place, you could cut down on a lot of this wasted time, boosting your productivity and lowering the number of workers needed to get the job done. Imagine a worker being able to go down a pick-path and pick items for 30 different orders at once. By then feeding those items into a sorter, the sorter can parcel everything out into the respective order.
This can reduce the time your workers spend walking each day by up to 40 percent, increasing the picker’s time per order, reducing labor hours, and allowing you to move workers to other areas of higher value work.
And then of course there’s the question of what happens during your peak times of the year. Though you may be able to employ only 30 or 40 full-time workers for 10 or 11 months out of the year, chances are that you regularly find yourself in the throes of a seasonal uptick in demand (such as around the holidays for retail workers).
To keep up with this increased demand during the holidays, many retailers need to hire additional pickers to process orders, sometimes to the tune of several hundred hands. Amazon has been known to build “camps” for its seasonal workers but many fulfillment operations are not as fortunate and struggle attracting sufficient amounts of quality workers each year.
All of those additional workers, even though they are only temporary, easily bite into the profits that your operation can retain. It’s hard to increase your bottom line when such a large chunk of your extra revenue each year needs to go towards paying your temp or seasonal workers. Seasonal workers are also less likely to be as invested in the success of your operations as a whole, and as such are more likely to make mistakes that can cost you revenue and customers down the line.
With an adequate sorter, though, even a seasonal uptick in demand can be met with fewer additional hands for picking. Because the machine does the bulk of the processing work, the staff you currently have on hand are more likely to be able to pick up the slack. And even if they can’t handle everything, the number of temp workers needing to be hired is likely to be lower if you’ve got a sorter helping to keep things efficient.
Sorting and Shipping
Sorting impacts more than just picking and processing: It can also have a huge impact on shipping as well. Shipping orders is one of the most critical steps that any supply chain needs to master. Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most costly business expenses.
And of course, customers want their orders fast—if you can’t deliver when they want it, they’ll go elsewhere. Being slow to deliver goods will cost you sales. Reducing your total order cycle time is one way of driving this number down and retaining customers, but your timeline will ultimately always be limited by the geographical space between you and your customers. Not much you can do there, right?
Wrong. A sorter can help you cut your delivery time in many instances by helping you shave days in transit. An effective sortation system can allow orders to skip pre-parcel hubs by presorting groups of orders that allow for fewer days in transit (called zone skipping). This means that your customers get their items faster, which keeps them happy and likely to come back in the future. A happy customer is a customer that’s going to spend money.
Getting Back on Track
We all know that efficiency matters. The more efficient you are every step of the way, the more profitable your operation can be. But what’s the point of running a highly efficient order fulfillment operation if you don’t embrace the power of sorting to make your picking, order processing, and shipping as streamlined as possible?