Putaway Process: Automating for Warehousing and Fulfillment Efficiency

As globalization and e-commerce continue to expand, the warehouse industry is growing at an exponential rate. Consumer demands are unrelenting. Every warehousing fulfillment company must compete for maximum efficacy or risk falling behind the competition.

Most companies, when reviewing their warehousing and fulfillment, will look to speed up outbound processes as picking, shipping, and packing. Often overlooked, however, are the inbound processes that have a direct effect on the outbound. Specifically, optimizing the putaway process will improve all functions of a distribution center.

 

Let’s take a look at the process as a whole. When material arrives at the dock, it must first be scanned, categorized, and checked for quality in the receiving process. After which, sorted palettes are typically taken to a staging area, where the putaway process begins. A warehouse management system analyzes the current storage space available, then chooses the most efficient space to put away each material, based on dimensions (size and weight), shipping/receiving frequency, value, and special handling requirements (temperature or hazardous, etc.). From there, the material ideally stays in storage for a short amount of time. Later, when a product is ordered, lift trucks or conveyor systems retrieve product in a picking process, which are then packed with other orders to be shipped.

To review, here are the main processes:

Inbound

  1. Receiving
  2. Putaway
  3.  Storage

Outbound

  1.  Picking
  2. Packing
  3. Shipping

Now, it should be clear that each process of warehousing and fulfillment affects the next process, and without a clear and efficient workflow, valuable time and money will continue to be wasted.

A typical warehousing fulfillment company spends most of its time analyzing and retooling its packing and shipping processes, which indeed are the most labor intensive, but an efficient retrieval process begins with efficient putaway/storage.

“Measure twice, cut once.” –English proverb

The most costly aspect of any process is error. An error in the picking process can lead to wrong product being shipped, and thus the cost of refunds and labor intensive restocking and reshipping. That, however, pales in comparison to the cost of errors in receiving and storage. If an entire palette is mislabeled, it will inevitably result in countless erroneous orders, backing up both inbound and outbound processes of warehousing and fulfillment.

The main challenge of any Warehouse Management System is storage, or inventory control. At any given moment, materials are being processed, awaiting putaway, while storage space is freed by materials leaving the warehouse in simultaneous orders. The opportunity for warehouse congestion is at every turn, as real-time statistics of the Warehouse Fulfillment Company is constantly changing. There is no pause to take inventory; rather, the storage process must continue checking palettes while orders are being processed.

Therefore, having an accurate and quick receiving process is critical to avoid errors in storage. That is why most warehousing and fulfillment strategies use a staging process in putaway as a “measure twice” failsafe in assessing and categorizing deliveries. Transporting materials to the staging area, however, is time-consuming, and an extra step in the receiving process that wastes valuable time and space.

The Intricacies of the Putaway Process

What exactly happens in the putaway process? To be literal, the receiver puts away materials to be picked later. This simplifies a rather laborious task, by which clerks must determine the right place in which to stock the items. Why then, have separate staging areas? Quite frankly, because of time. Docks constantly receive materials day in and day out, and the process of finding storage space and putting palettes away clogs up the necessary space needed for new materials to arrive.
The key to speeding up the putaway process lies in the receiving process itself. By reducing the amount of time it takes to analyze, weigh, measure, and quality check shipments, warehousing fulfillment companies can ensure a faster method to putting away materials.

How do we speed up the process of finding the right storage space? By having accurate and real-time statistics of inventory control. Errors in storage are costly—human error by far the most common. Moving inventory processes to mobile computers will end time-consuming error-prone manual entry. In this way, putaway can quickly analyze the closest, most efficient storage capacity available to any given palette.

Streamlining the workflow between receiving, putaway, and storage relies solely on accurate and reliable mobile technology. Often, warehousing fulfillment companies must choose between speed vs. accuracy, but with automation, the choice is actually both. With mobile automation, clerks can process real-time shipments to move goods from the dock into its optimal storage location without a separate staging area. This eliminates costly travel time between dock and storage while still keeping the passageway clear.

Warehouse management systems will determine:

  1.  the quickest/shortest route from dock
  2.  the most efficient available storage capacity based on material dimensions
  3. the shipping/receiving frequency of present material
  4. any special handling requirements

To optimize this process, a direct putaway will require mobile printing and quality checks on the dock. Operators can assess and re-label palettes with barcodes specific to the warehousing fulfillment company for easy retrievability. Thus, distribution centers save space with same-day putaway, ensuring less damage and less transaction errors.

The efficacy of this labeling process depends on the Warehouse Management System and its ability to cross-reference real-time statistics. Thus clerks can use a real-time algorithm to determine the optimal storage space, reducing error and time. While implementing an automated system is costly, the benefits of such efficiency can be seen in the very first day, with highly reduced warehouse congestion, and a better-automated picking and packing process.

In some cases, cross-docking may further eliminate valuable time, flagging “hot” items for immediate shipment. While this may still require a special staging area, the items are processed with high priority storage space is saved.

The putaway process determines the efficacy of both receiving and shipping workflows. By moving to real-time, mobile automation, best warehousing fulfillment companies can significantly reduce or eliminate the staging process, cut transport time, and prioritize popular items for quicker processing and delivery.

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