Bucket brigades: Resources
Who can advise me about bucket brigades?
The idea behind bucket brigades is so simple that most users
have been able to implement it themselves. But if you want
someone to look over your shoulder, you are welcome to contact
us. Meanwhile, here are some immediate resources. (These are
mostly for using bucket brigades to coordinate order-pickers in a
distribution center; it is harder to generalize about
manufacturing because each environment is unique.)
First, see our list of Frequently-Asked
Questions. If you have further questions, please contact us:
We are very interested in tracking use of bucket brigades and
learning from new applications.
We are happy to share videotapes of bucket brigades; or you
can see a shorter version here.
For training, you can also run a bucket brigade with real
people in a simulated warehouse. Here are instructions
and materials for an exercise that our students and clients
have found very useful.
Most of the following are technical publications and will be
of interest primarily to academics. Material of more general
interest may be found here.
production line that balances itself by J. Bartholdi and D.
Eisenstein, in Operations Research
44(1):21-34 (1996), special issue on new
directions in operations management. This is the original paper
introducing bucket brigades and is the key academic reference.
It includes a precise mathematical model of a bucket brigade as
a dynamical system, analyzes its asymptotic behavior, and
proves that production rate is maximized. Also includes a
detailed justification of the appropriateness of the
- Dynamics of
2- and 3-worker `bucket brigade' production lines by J.
Bartholdi, L. Bunimovich, and D. Eisenstein, in Operations
Research 47(3):488-491 (1999). Primarily
for academics: A catalogue of all possible dynamic behavior of
small bucket brigade lines plus mention of some open
mathematical questions. Among the results: Evidence for the
existence of mathematical chaos for some pathologically
- Performance of
bucket brigades when work is stochastic by J. Bartholdi, D.
Eisenstein, and R. Foley (2001), Operations Research
49(5):710-719. Mathematical proof that bucket
brigades are expected to perform well even when the work has an
element of randomness to it.
- Using Bucket
Brigades to Migrate from Craft Manufacturing to Assembly
Lines by J. Bartholdi and D. Eisenstein (2005),
Manufacturing and Service Operations Management
7(2):121-129. A case study describing how a
manufacturer of tractors used bucket brigades to migrate from
craft assembly (one person assembles one tractor) to a
semi-automated assembly line.
brigades on in-tree assembly networks by J. Bartholdi, D.
Eisenstein, and Y. F. Lim (2006), The European Journal of
Operational Research 168(3):870-879,
special issue on balancing assembly and transfer lines. This
shows how to use bucket brigades on a "tree" of merging
sub-assembly lines so that all the sub-assembly lines are
balanced and, moreover, they are all synchronized so that the
assembly network produces product at regular, predictable
- Deterministic Chaos in a Model of Discrete Manufacturing
by J. Bartholdi, D. Eisenstein, and Y. F. Lim (2009), Naval Research Logistics Quarterly 56(4):293-299. A mathematical analysis showing that if a special type of bucket brigade is configured pathologically then fully chaotic behavior is possible. One result is that the intercompletion times of product can appear random even though everything about the assembly line is deterministic.
partitioning in insect societies: bucket brigades,
Insectes Sociaux 49 (2002). In 1999
two Spanish biologists reported a species of ant that carries
seeds back to the colony by passing each seed from slower to
faster ants--bucket brigades! This paper analyzes how bucket
brigades can form spontaneously if each ant simply grabs the
first seed it can and carries it back to the nest.
Armbruster and E. Gel of Arizona State University have
explored the dynamics of bucket brigades in which worker skills
are changing or are multi-dimensional. With J. Murakami, they
show that bucket brigades are robustly optimal in the presence
of worker learning. In another paper they study a model in
which a worker may be faster at one portion of the work but
slower at another portion.
- R. Villalobos
of Arizona State University and his colleagues have written
several papers about how bucket brigades can be especially
effective in the presence of high labor turnover. They have
also done some nice work implementing a bucket brigade
production line at a United Technologies
Recovering cyclic schedules using dynamic produce up-to
policies by D. Eisenstein, Operations Research
53(4):675-688 (2005). This uses the ideas
behind bucket brigades to schedule a manufacturing resource
amongst competing products. A simple rule tells what to
manufacture next and for how long; the result is that the
system gravitates to a sustainable and efficient manufacturing
A survey of the self-balancing production lines (“bucket
brigades”) by A. Bratcu and A. Dolgui, Journal of
Intelligent Manufacturing 16 (2005).
Other references, citations,
- A nice summary article in Supply Chain Digest by D. Gilmore (July 2007). (Subsequent to this, a reader wrote in to say that he had set up bucket brigades in his shipping area and “this has helped us considerably”.)
- “The bucket brigade: a new approach to order-picking”, in
Warehousing Tips by K. Ackerman, Ackerman Publications (2002).
- Bucket brigades are discussed in the article “Swarm
intelligence: A whole new way to think about business” by E.
Bonabeau and C. Meyer, which appeard in the Harvard Business Review, May 2001, pp
- “Give productivity a boost without any investment in
equipment” by S. Estersohn, in Distribution Channels
magazine, May 1998, pp 51-54.
- “Self-organization will free employees to act like bosses”,
in the weekly column "The Front Line" by Thomas Petzinger, Jr.,
The Wall Street Journal, January 3, 1997. Petzinger
writes "The new model for organizations is the biological
world, where uncontrolled actions produce stunningly efficient
and robust results, all through adaptation and
- The Center of Business Innovations at Ernst and Young LLP has sponsored
colloquia on complexity science and business and have published
books about each. You can read about bucket brigades in the
book describing the second conference.
- “Call out the bucket brigade!”, in The WERCsheet
(a publication of the Warehousing Educational and Reseach Council),
July/August 1996. A journalist's summary of our presentation on
order-picking by bucket brigade, given at the national WERC
conference in San Francisco, 1996. It does not quite get the
fine points right but is a reasonable summary, with some second
- Two students at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand
have done an excellent honors
project predicting how bucket brigades could improve
manufacturing at a local company.
- Two graduate students at the University of Lund in Sweden won a prize for their masters thesis, Evaluation of bucket brigades - a next generation order-picking strategy. The work was done with collaboration of Consafe Logistics.
- Here is a lecture by John Bartholdi on self-organizing logistics systems.