Combining Pick & Return Handling Processes Can Improve Efficiency and Profitability

Reverse logistics or returns can be found in virtually any manufacturing and distribution facility that ships to internal and external customers, making it crucial to have an efficient process in place. Combining picking and returns into one automated system can help warehousing organizations relieve handling costs, achieve greater productivity and improve customer service.

Merchandise can be returned for a variety of reasons and by some estimates can amount to 5 to 10% of items that are shipped. An effective approach to handling both picking and returns is by integrating horizontal & vertical carousels and Vertical Lift Modules (VLMs) to automate, combine and simplify the order fulfillment process.

By developing workstations using the right combination of automated equipment, inventory management software and process, picking and returns handling can be significantly improved up to 600% in some applications, while offering a more accurate method of maintaining inventories and reducing mispicks. In doing so, they increase operator efficiency and productivity, reduce inventory levels, and improve customer service and satisfaction.

Automated storage and retrieval systems provide 100% accessible storage and are designed to deliver stored items at an ergonomically optimized height to eliminate bending, stretching and reaching, reducing labor requirements by up to 66%. These systems can minimize dwell time caused by operators searching for the correct storage location and increase productivity by allowing operators to suspend current operations with a click of a button to handle a return or process an order. Once the return or pick is completed, an operator can return to their previous activity immediately with little delay in the process.

Efficient high speed pick & return system

A publishing company in Missouri combined all of their sales and returns into one high throughput, labor efficient and accurate system. The heart of their system is a bank of 12 horizontal carousels that are arranged in three workstations with four carousels per workstation. The horizontal carousel system is located in the distribution center. Nazarene integrates conveyors to transport orders from one carousel workstation to the next. This pick-and-pass methodology allows SKUs to be located at any one of the carousels, eliminating multiple positions and reducing inventory. An order is sent from workstation one to workstation two and on to workstation three. A significant portion of the literature distributed to representatives is sent back to the distribution facility to be returned to stock and distributed again. Up to 50 out of the 100 cases sent out are returned with each containing up to 1000 lines per case. Due to the large number of SKUs returned daily, a system providing not only efficient picking, but also fast returns was required.

The returns are broken down by SKU. Each SKU is scanned, associated with a tote a scanning its license plate and put on conveyor to the correct carousel workstation or shelving area. The operator scans the toe and the carousels position to the correct carrier, the pick-to-light trees indicate which carousel, carrier, shelf, and cell to place the SKU.

The carousel system has dramatically reduced the required man-hours and increased productivity up to 30%. The system takes only four people, in comparison to having required 12 pickers with the previous system that utilized static shelving and printed packing lists to direct their picker's activities. "We used to pick and pack orders directly in the box," said Barry Russell, customer service manager for Nazarene Publishing House, "Now with the carousels, we're filling orders faster than we can pack them for shipment. We are quite pleased with what we see."

Manufacturers and retailers looking to reduce the impact of the slower economy should analyze their returns handling procedures. By merging pick and return operations businesses can reduce costs, improve overall storage and retrieval efficiency and make the best use of existing facilities.

KardexRemstar Inc., a company of the Kardex AG Group is a leading provider of automated storage and retrieval systems for manufacturing, distribution, warehousing, office and institutions. For information about the KardexRemstar reverse logistics capabilities, call 800-639-5805 or visit the KardexRemstar web site at

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