Picking methods-
an overview of the main processes

Goods handling in the warehouse is one of the central elements of the supply chain. Of all the processes in logistics, order picking is one of the most intensive in terms of time and human resources.

In this blog post, you will find out everything you need to know about the most important picking methods, and will learn the benefits and drawbacks of the main processes. You will also receive tips on how to choose the right picking methods for your needs

© Picavi at Ecomal

Definition of order picking

Order picking is a goods provision procedure. A common example is the collection of goods ordered online for delivery. Some logistics companies use automated solutions like picking robots or automatic picking systems for this process. Manual order picking remains the most common method today, however. This requires warehouse employees who collect the goods ordered by customers in the correct quantity from various storage spaces, before placing them together in a goods basket. These employees are known as pickers. The main goal of order picking is to pick goods quickly and with as few errors as possible in order to keep supply chain costs low.

What are the available picking methods?

There are generally two main types of picking method in the logistics industry:

What is goods-to-person picking?

As the name suggests, goods-to-person picking involves the ordered goods coming directly from the warehouse to the picker. This method often uses automated material handling systems, for example. These include picking robots or automated shelf systems. This method is mainly used when there is a high number of orders per day in the warehouse, as automated material handling systems are an expensive investment.

What is person-to-goods picking?​

Person-to-goods picking is a manual goods provision process. The picker goes to the storage location and takes the required quantity of goods stored there. Compared to automated picking, the costs of manual picking are much lower. This process operates on an order-by-order basis and involves a wide range of different technologies, such as pick-by-vision, pick-by-voice and pick-by-PDC.

What are the most common order picking processes?

At this point, we would like to give you an overview of the most common processes and technologies involved in person-to-goods picking, along with their advantages and disadvantages.
  • Pick-by-Paper
  • Pick-by-Scan
  • Pick-by-Light
  • Pick-by-Voice
  • Pick-by-Vision
  • Side note: Pick-by-Robot

Pick-by-scan – picking with a mobile scanner

In pick-by-scan, the information on the picking list is presented to the picker digitally on a mobile handheld scanner. This device is connected to the higher-level order picking system.

Advantages of pick-by-scan:

  • Lower susceptibility to errors
  • Fleet of scanners can be flexibly expanded

Disadvantages of pick-by-scan:

  • Picker’s hands are not free
  • Limited freedom of movement
Pick-by-scan is a mature system that is used as standard in many applications like retail. Despite this, it offers very little room for development. The picker still has to put down the scanner to actually remove goods from storage.

Pick-by-scan – picking with a mobile scanner

In pick-by-scan, the information on the picking list is presented to the picker digitally on a mobile handheld scanner. This device is connected to the higher-level order picking system.

Advantages of pick-by-scan:

  • Lower susceptibility to errors
  • Fleet of scanners can be flexibly expanded

Disadvantages of pick-by-scan:

  • Picker’s hands are not free
  • Limited freedom of movement
Pick-by-scan is a mature system that is used as standard in many applications like retail. Despite this, it offers very little room for development. The picker still has to put down the scanner to actually remove goods from storage.

Pick-by-light – picking with light signals

Pick-by-light is best suited for use in warehouses with high throughput and large item quantities. This system guides the picker through the warehouse using light signals that are attached to the shelves in displays and buttons. Once they reach the storage space, the picker confirms their action, i.e. removing goods or filling the storage space in a so-called put-to-light process.

Advantages of pick-by-light:

  • Lower susceptibility to errors
  • Enables high throughput and easy error correction
  • Good ergonomics and freedom of movement for the picker

Disadvantages of pick-by-light:

  • High initial investment costs
  • Higher maintenance requirements
  • Lower flexibility
A combination of pick-by-light and put-to-light can be a good choice for warehouses with high throughput. The high initial investment costs and lower flexibility can outweigh this, however. As a result, this method is less popular among smaller warehouses and those that specialize in certain goods.

Pick-by-voice – voice-guided picking

Pick-by-voice is a popular picking method in logistics. The picker receives the order information directly to their ear. Using a headset and microphone, the picker is guided through the warehouse to the items by a computer-generated voice and communicates directly with the higher-level system.

Vorteile von Pick-by-Voice:

  • Good connection to other systems
  • Good ergonomics and freedom of movement
  • Hands-free method

Disadvantages of pick-by-voice:

  • Constant listening quickly leads to fatigue
  • Possible to skip verification of location and correct item when picking
  • Barcode scanning requires external device
Pick-by-voice was the first system that allowed the picker to keep both hands free. This led to improved ergonomics and allowed the picker to concentrate on their main job. But the need for the picker to listen constantly, combined with the fact that it is possible to skip item and storage location verification, makes the system susceptible to errors and increasingly imprecise.

Pick-by-vision – picking with smart glasses

Pick-by-vision is based on the fact that 80% of the information presented to us every day is taken in and processed visually. Picking with smart glasses allows pickers to be guided visually through the warehouse and the entire picking process. The system combines the benefits of pick-by-voice and pick-by-light, and is both highly flexible and adjustable. A barcode scanner integrated in the smart glasses makes picking easier and less tiring. All of the relevant information is displayed in real time on the glasses. This increases reliability and allows the picker to check storage locations, items or item numbers at any time. The compulsory scanning verifies that the correct item has been picked. The picker has their hands free at all times and receives a confirmation once they have successfully processed the order.

Advantages of pick-by-vision:

  • High productivity and picking speed
  • Can be expanded flexibly
  • Excellent ergonomics
  • Zero fatigue
  • Picker’s hands are free at all times, high freedom of movement
  • Significantly reduced error rates
  • Seamless integration with higher-level systems
  • Low training requirements

Disadvantages of pick-by-vision:

  • Pickers that wear glasses at work require an additional frame to use pick-by-vision

Side note: pick-by-robot:

As the name suggests, pick-by-robot uses logistics robots to pick goods and items. Instead of a human picker, an autonomous vehicle moves through the warehouse and automatically picks the goods.

Advantages of pick-by-robot:

  • Lower staff costs
  • High pick quality
  • Consistently high order picking performance

Disadvantages of pick-by-robot:

  • Extremely high procurement costs
  • Low flexibility
  • High maintenance and servicing requirements
At present, pick-by-robot is an extremely expensive option. In addition, many models lack the flexibility to pick different-sized goods. A good alternative are so-called cobots, which automatically guide the picker through the warehouse and also act as a goods basket.

Direct comparison of the main picking methods

Comparing picking methods can often be difficult for logistics companies. Our infographic will provide you with help and information about what the various processes are actually capable of.

What is the best picking method?

After presenting the various order picking methods, one thing is clear: each method has its own advantages and disadvantages. These need to be weighed up in terms of suitability to the actual application. Order picking using paper lists (pick-by-paper) is no longer fit for purpose. More modern picking methods like pick-by-vision become more viable as throughput increases. They offer high picking speed, much lower error rates and good ergonomics. Hands-free systems are especially useful when handling bulky or heavy items. Some technologies like pick-by-scan are fully matured and offer little in the way of development potential. More advanced systems combine the benefits of this method with greater flexibility. Technologies like pick-by-vision also offer excellent potential for expansion that allow the system to be used for other applications.

The most important criteria when choosing a picking method

When choosing an order picking method, there are a number of criteria that must be taken into account:
  • Investment costs

    You should always find out about the expected investment costs and weigh these up against the expected ROI.

  • Throughput

    Make sure to consider the order capacity to be processed when making your decision. How many orders do you process per day and per time unit in your warehouse?

  • Warehouse size

    Consider the amount of space used in your warehouse. Take into account criteria such as the width of the aisles, the height of the shelves and the available levels.

  • IT compatibility

    Check whether the new order picking technology is compatible with your existing warehouse IT infrastructure.

  • Staff

    Get your staff involved in the process. What are the needs of your pickers? Decide which system addresses these needs best and customize it to your team.

Checklist for choosing a picking method

Our checklist contains the most important questions that a company should ask before choosing a picking method.

FAQ: The most important questions and answers on picking methods

The simplest form of person-to-goods order picking is pick-by-paper, which uses paper lists to pick goods. Pick-by-scan digitizes this method of order picking. The items to be removed, along with the required quantity, are displayed on a mobile device like a PDC. Another order picking method is pick-by-light. This system guides the picker through the warehouse to the relevant items using lighting elements. A more flexible option is pick-by-voice, in which the picker is guided through the warehouse by a computer-generated voice. Pick-by-vision combines the benefits of pick-by-voice and pick-by-light. The picker wears a pair of smart glasses that guide them through the warehouse. This keeps their hands free at all times, allowing them to concentrate on their main job of picking goods. Pick-by-vision is therefore a highly ergonomic and modern technology.
Pick-by-paper is the cheapest method of manual order picking, but it is inefficient and highly susceptible to errors. Pick-by-scan digitizes the picking list. Despite this, the picker still has to hold the scanner, meaning their hands are not free for picking goods. Newer systems such as pick-by-light or pick-by-voice are much more efficient. Pick-by-light reliably guides the picker through the warehouse. This solution comes with high initial investment costs, however, and is not very flexible or easy to scale. Pick-by-voice allows the picker to keep their hands free for their main activity. This technology requires the picker to listen constantly, however, which can lead to fatigue and therefore picking errors. Pick-by-vision combines all the advantages of the modern processes. One major advantage is the excellent ergonomics. It also leads to increased picking speed and lower error rates. The technology requires little training and allows warehouse staff to work comfortably and efficiently for long periods.
Introducing a new picking method is a major decision that requires the support of many different stakeholders in the business. The most important groups are staff, logistics managers and the IT department. Beyond this, the management board and company health and safety managers need to be involved in the project, along with customer IT departments and external IT service providers.

Order picking is one of the most time and work-intensive tasks in the warehouse. As the last link in the internal logistics chain, it has a direct impact on customer satisfaction and therefore the company’s reputation. Any errors in order picking are felt by the customer immediately. Many companies are exploring automated options for this process. But the overwhelming majority, around 80%, still rely on more flexible manual solutions. As product portfolios continue to grow and become ever more diverse, and delivery times become ever shorter, this flexibility can be a crucial advantage.

The best user interface belongs to pick-by-vision. It relieves the mental load on the picker by reducing the amount of information displayed to a minimum. Pick-by-vision guides the worker precisely through the process and makes their job easier. This significantly reduces the mental and cognitive load on the picker. The user interface can be easily adapted to the individual needs of the worker at any time.

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