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Creating an Ergonomically Friendly Order Picking Experience

By: Alex Fuerst, Contributor

Image courtesy of Crown Equipment.

While order picking is an essential part of the supply chain, it is one of the warehouse’s most physically demanding and resource-intensive tasks. It is not uncommon for many order pickers to walk 10 miles in a single shift, bending, lifting and stretching to place products on pallets or in storage bins.

The rise of e-commerce has intensified the situation. Companies that predominately focused on case picking are moving to more piece picking to fill individual orders, increasing the frequency and changing the process of their order picking application.

The strenuous nature of the task not only affects the well-being of the workers but also challenges productivity and efficiency levels. The demanding working environment can also influence employee retention and hiring efforts in an especially tight hiring market.

One way to create a more ergonomically friendly order picking process may be to review the equipment assigned to the task, with the goal of enhancing operator comfort and productivity.

Identifying Ergonomically Friendly Features

Outside of personal breaks and maintenance stops, order pickers spend the majority of their day on and around the lift truck. How they interact with the equipment directly affects comfort and stamina throughout the shift, which can ultimately influence overall productivity and safety. Fatigued operators can be less focused or may consider taking shortcuts that put them at risk.

When selecting a lift truck to assist with low-level order picking, pay special attention to the ergonomic features it may offer. Following are a few potential features.

  • Electronic power steering that can improve lift truck control and maneuverability while reducing operator fatigue by alleviating strain and enhancing comfort.
  • Cushioned or suspended floorboards that absorb shock and vibrations when the lift truck travels over cracked or uneven floors and dock plates. This helps reduce stress on knees and joints and enhances operator stability.
  • Control handles that offer a textured, comfortable grip and allow operators to maintain an ergonomically correct stance while operating the lift truck.
  • Forks that raise and lower to enable operators to adjust the pallet to an optimal height to reduce bending and stretching, helping eliminate back and shoulder strain. Longer forks also mean operators can build two or three pallets simultaneously to reduce steps.
  • Spacious operator compartments, combined with a low step height, accommodate operators of various sizes while providing ample room for task movement and comfortable entry and exit.

Enhancing Order Picking with Automation

In existing warehouses, low-level order picking can be difficult to fully automate because of the diversity of the picklist and established infrastructure. Some applications may benefit from an operator assist feature that enables the operator to remotely advance the lift truck while it uses various sensors to safely travel down the aisle, avoiding obstacles that may block its path. This control is accomplished through the use of a wearable, wireless device that communicates with the lift truck while still providing the operator with the dexterity required to pick individual products.

Introducing this type of operator assistance technology to low-level order picking can deliver three primary benefits:

  • Enables a more streamlined low-level order picking process while in the aisle.
  • Eliminates wasted steps, reducing picking time and operator fatigue.
  • Utilizes rider mode to advance the lift truck to the next aisle or to transport the completed pallets to the order fulfillment station.

A remotely controlled lift truck enables operators to work from behind the lift truck, advancing the vehicle without stepping on and off the operator platform and moving back and forth across the aisle in an efficient Z-shaped picking pattern. Operators remotely position the lift truck relative to the next items to be picked, maintaining a smooth workflow pattern and yielding ergonomic and productivity improvements.

Low-level order picking can be very labor-intensive. Enhancing the process should focus on improving the operator experience, which will ultimately help to boost productivity and safety and promote the well-being of employees.

A Case in Point

Lodge Manufacturing is an internationally known manufacturer of cast iron cookware, founded more than 120 years ago in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. It is recognized not only as one of America’s oldest continuously operating cookware companies but also as an industry innovator, being the first to introduce pre-seasoned cookware to the market. Today, the company’s products are shipped worldwide and sold through big box stores, hardware stores, specialty retail outlets and through online e-commerce.

For many years, the original Lodge foundry and a 40,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center kept pace with demand, but in the mid-1990’s business began to increase dramatically. A foundry expansion was soon followed by the construction of a second foundry and a new 212,000 square foot distribution center designed to handle larger orders associated with the company’s traditional channels as well as smaller individual orders generated via e-commerce.

With capacity now available to support the significant increase in demand, Lodge needed the right mix of lift trucks and processes that would enable them to effectively handle incoming inventory from two foundries while efficiently processing orders both large and small.

Lodge Manufacturing consulted with Crown Equipment and its local dealer, The Bailey Company, on both the warehouse design and the new fleet of lift trucks, with each element designed to support specific tasks. The Crown MPC Series order picker was an important part of the order picking solution. The multi-purpose lift truck provides an ergonomically friendly order picking solution that enables operators to adjust the pallet to an optimal height at the forks. The ability to remotely raise and lower the forks reduces steps, while the adjustable height reduces bending and stretching when handling the heavy cast iron cookware, helping reduce back and shoulder strain.

The ability to remotely raise and lower the forks, combined with a spacious operator compartment that offers ample room and a low step height for easy entry and exit, provides a more comfortable and ergonomically friendly experience for workers. Overall, the company saw productivity increase dramatically, more than doubling order picking capacity.

Alex Fuerst is Marketing Product Manager at Crown Equipment. To learn more about Crown Equipment’s forklifts, as well as automation and fleet management technologies, visit www.crown.com.

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