Materials Handling

Output vs Ergonomics

By Gian Schiava

April 2024

The human angle behind effective and stress-free order picking

In the last decade, warehouses have transformed from an efficient, inventory-keeping part of the company into real contributors to the bottom line. Online sales have become a significant proportion of the overall turnover, but this development has also had a great impact on workload pressure in the warehouse. Order picking needs to be fast, flawless and efficient to be able to maintain delivery promises to the customers, in both consumer and B2B (Business to Business) markets. What does this all mean for the tools we use and, perhaps even more importantly, what are the consequences for the warehouse operators? Gian Schiava explores the fragile balance and interrelationship between performance and ergonomics.


Rising forks can be lifted to a convenient height that avoids operator stretching and straining.

Ergonomics as a driver for design

To be fair, the leading producers of materials handling equipment did factor ergonomics into their designs long before this increased focus on order picking efficiency. Comfort was increased by lowering noise levels and vibrations, and through modern controls like fingertip levers which replaced traditional handles. Fully suspended seats and flexible features on warehouse trucks contributed to a smoother way of working. After all, a comfortable operator is a productive operator. However, the additional new peaks in order intake demanded that the same operator had to become an ultra-productive one. Just adding a few well-thought-out ‘bells and whistles’ wasn’t enough to get the job done. Designing order picking trucks that could contribute to the necessary new level of performance required another approach.

A great example can be seen in the transition of the Finnish factory of Cat® Lift Trucks (where all Cat® warehouse trucks are developed) towards design work based on ‘user experience’ (UX). Ergonomic considerations were only part of the overall equation within this process; the main quest was to come up with differentiation in added value for the users.

Cat design specialists teamed up with external experts in FIMECC (Finnish Metals and Engineering Complex Cluster) UXUS (User Experience and Usability in Complex Systems), a national research programme aimed at developing and improving the competitiveness of the Finnish metals and engineering industry. On a much larger scale than ever before, designers took field trips to see workers, working conditions and onsite operations. After that, the whole NPI (new product introduction) process was redesigned. ‘Creating the best user experience in the market’ became the core of all operations, and today the range of Cat warehouse trucks is amongst the most advanced in the world.


A rising platform allows the operator to reach higher racking levels without having to climb.

Features with output and comfort in mind

Let’s have a look at some features which make a difference every day. Low-level order pickers are specialised trucks for operations at the first two levels of warehouse pallet racking, where picking of pallets, boxes or even individual pieces can occur. Trucks may be enhanced with rising forks, whose benefits include lifting loads to a convenient handling height to reduce stretching and straining for the operator. Versions with scissor-lift have a similar rising function, but with their long forks they can carry larger loads. Two Euro pallets or several roll cages can be handled at once.

When picking is also needed at heights up to 2.5 metres, rising platforms elevate the operator so he/she can pick without having to climb. Man-up order pickers, bringing the operator to heights of as much as 12 metres, have cabins with the most user-friendly interfaces, like positionally adjustable controls or small-diameter steering wheels.

These are just a few examples of features aimed largely at ensuring that picking doesn’t happen above the shoulder or below the knees. They keep strain on the body to a minimum, so operators can stay productive all day.


Optional side-mounted controls allow walk-along operation - with no need to re-enter the truck between each pick.

Small differences often lead to large gains

Of course, it’s easy to see how these aids minimise fatigue and even absenteeism, but how much can they really boost productivity? A few years ago, the Dutch intralogistics news platform LogisticsInside tested order pickers with and without a simple feature: a walk-along button, which eliminates the need for getting back into the truck after picking an item. They designed a simple course with several pallet positions to pick from and recorded the activity with a chronometer. The result was a staggering time saving of 10 to 20%! In the real world, at the end of the day this would mean an enormous difference in packages shipped.

Similarly, you can also pick more lines per hour when trucks have features like a flying start, obstacle-free walk-through operator compartment or exceptional acceleration. Obviously, picking efficiency can be increased with better routing and a cleverer warehouse layout, but the purpose of this article is merely to look at the value of ergonomically designed trucks.


Order picking ease and efficiency can also benefit from wearable aids such as ring barcode scanners.

Modern ‘add-ons’ keep manual order picking interesting

Clever truck design does clearly have an impact on order picking efficiency, but today’s market also offers add-on technology that enhances output even further. Mounting of terminals on the trucks is ideal for less intensive picking. More and more, operators are using so-called ‘wearables’. These technologies are a kind of extension of the human body, designed to make work easier and more ergonomic. Handheld scanners have become much-adopted tools, but now there are also versions mounted on a picking glove. Data glasses (pick-by-vision), mobile labelling devices, helmets with cameras, and voice picking vests, will all be deployed not only to increase output but to improve stock accuracy and data integrity.


Cabins of high-level order pickers often feature the most user-friendly interfaces.

Warehouse trucks with user-centric designs, in combination with modern technologies, are enabling ‘manual order picking’ to maintain a key role, whilst keeping stress and fatigue for the operators to a minimum. Smart working is the fundamental principle on which a modern operation must be built.