The quest for efficiency: warehouse automation promises great productivity improvements for operators who devote sufficient planning and forethought to achieving it.The automated au·to·mate
v. au·to·mat·ed, au·to·mat·ing, au·to·mates
1. To convert to automatic operation: automate a factory.
2. warehouse has long been a dream of distribution center operators. Visions of robotic ro·bot·ic
Relating to, characteristic of, or employing robots. lift arms putting and picking without manual interaction and conveyors delivering picked products directly to the shipping docks have enticed logistics professionals for more than a decade. The fully automated warehouse may still be found only at the end of the yellow brick road, but some degree of automation is found in most facilities today.
The term warehouse automation refers not just to robotic systems; it also encompasses almost any system in which a human task is either given over to a machine or guided and managed by a computer. Most warehouse management systems (WMS WMS Warehouse Management System
WMS Web Map Service (open geospatial consortium specification)
WMS West Middle School (Rochester Hills, MI)
WMS Workforce Management Software
WMS Wechsler Memory Scale ) incorporate many qualities and procedures that help automate To turn a set of manual steps into an operation that goes by itself. See automation. the various tasks.
Relatively few warehouses are still fully manual. By now, most have some kind of WMS in place and are using it to help direct order routing, picking, putting, shipping or scheduling. Most warehouses seem to have reached the point where their managers are deciding what comes next.
"We find that the average distribution center or warehouse is in a state of flux Noun 1. state of flux - a state of uncertainty about what should be done (usually following some important event) preceding the establishment of a new direction of action; "the flux following the death of the emperor"
flux in terms of automating its systems and processes," says Daniel Boatman, principal of Miami-based Systems Integration Associates. "There's a lot of programs and equipment out there that have a great range of capabilities, but many operators still haven't developed the necessary plan or vision that allows them to put the whole thing together to run the facility to its optimum level."
According to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.
2. In keeping with: according to instructions.
3. Boatman, the goal of most distribution centers should not necessarily be full robotic automation but more along the lines of achieving maximum efficiency, given the facility's size, the type of products it handles and the nature of its operation. "When we talk about adopting automated procedures we must consider not only what will make the particular facility work more productively but what will also give the biggest productivity boost to the company's entire supply chain," he says.
In developing any plan to automate a part of the warehouse function, experts say, it's important to keep the big picture in mind. "It takes careful planning to make a system efficient in terms of the whole distribution setup See BIOS setup and install program. ," says James Tipton, senior vice president of Indianapolis-based Supply Chain Strategies. "A common mistake that distribution executives make is to look at any one system, software program or piece of automation equipment and just determine how it will improve a specific task or part of their warehouse operation. That's shortchanging the whole enterprise. If you are going to install a conveyor Conveyor
A horizontal, inclined, declined, or vertical machine for moving or transporting bulk materials, packages, or objects in a path predetermined by the design of the device and having points of loading and discharge fixed or selective. system, for example, why wouldn't you also look at how that could be integrated into a picking system or order-entering program?
"One system will always have an impact on several other systems, so making one more effective may make other tasks either more efficient or, in some cases, less efficient. Looking at each system or task in a vacuum will reduce the gain in overall productivity of installing that system."
Tipton suggests that as a first step those in charge of developing the automation plan simply get out and walk the warehouse floor. Operators should look at the way their warehouse is set up and how each operation is done. At this point operators should go back to their written procedures and check how well they are being followed and determine how the warehouse procedures currently in place differ from the best practices for a given task.
STUDY THE FLOW
"Studying the flow in the warehouse from one operation or task to the next will give management a good idea of where the need for improvement is the greatest," Tipton says. "I recommend doing a detailed walk-through like this every few months even if there is no automation planning in progress. In many cases the operator can discover ways in which to increase productivity by just making some small physical changes in layout or operations.
"Also look at what your people are doing," he adds. "Work flow is dependent on the way the workers carry it out. Unless the flow from operation to operation is totally automated, the human element will come into play. What I do is study the way workers interact with an automated operation, say a guided picking system for example, when it is first instituted and then come back a year later and see how those interactions have changed. Often there is a fall-off on the efficiency curve after the first few months. The system hasn't changed, but either the procedures or the employee reactions to them differ."
Among the most popular automation systems being adopted by grocery warehouses are WMS and guided picking systems that feature voice, light or computer prompting via screens on the lift trucks. Any of these systems can have a big impact on productivity by itself. However, improving the equipment used in conjunction with it can greatly enhance the effect.
For instance, putting in computerized carts with a WMS may well improve productivity, as can adding a conveyor system. Simply rearranging the slotting or location of bins can sometimes have a tremendous effect on the efficiency of a new automated pick or put system.
Once a plan for automating various warehouse functions has been developed and the priorities are in place, the simplest way to implement any automation plan is often to go out and buy a software package or certain pieces of equipment, depending on what the program entails. But is a ready-made automation package, or even a WMS program, the best way to go?
Experts are somewhat divided on the advisability ad·vis·a·ble
Worthy of being recommended or suggested; prudent.
ad·visa·bil of off-the-shelf automation solutions, especially when it comes to management software. Automation equipment is fairly standard, but most vendors will work with the operator to customize its configuration and programmability.
In terms of software and WMS packages, operators are cautioned to be very picky pick·y
adj. pick·i·er, pick·i·est Informal
Excessively meticulous; fussy.
[pickier, pickiest] Brit, Austral & NZ . A warehouse automation package has to have a number of specific characteristics, experts advise.
"Any WMS or automation management system has to flexible enough to meet the growing needs of the organization," says Ryan Barnes, president of Toronto-based Barnes Associates. "I suggest that any management package that is going to be implemented be a highly scalable and open package. There are two reasons for this. First, this gives the warehouse owner the ability to add on other management functions as his needs and capabilities grow. Why would someone implement a software control system that just entered orders and scheduled trucks in and out of the distribution center but had no capabilities of ever tying those functions to the putting away of products or the picking of orders? It is counterproductive coun·ter·pro·duc·tive
Tending to hinder rather than serve one's purpose: "Violation of the court order would be counterproductive" Philip H. Lee. to end up with multiple systems managing different aspects of the same warehouse."
SUPPLY CHAIN COMPATIBILITY
"The second reason for employing an open system," says Barnes, "is to be able to link it with those of your supply chain partners. Communications is one of the most important aspects of automation. Having the ability to automate the delivery appointment scheduling with vendors and carriers and transmitting that information to the warehouse labor-management program and onto an automated put-away system and then to the outgoing order and route scheduler is a giant step to improving the productivity of the whole supply chain. As a matter of fact, I usually suggest that warehouse operators talk to their major suppliers and carriers before even ordering any management system for their facility."
While the trend is for WMS and other warehouse systems to be modular and encompass a great many functionalities, many software developers are willing to work with operators to customize various parts of their programs.
Customization offers the chance to implement a system that is standardized to a great degree, which allows for an easier flow of information and functionalities between supply chain partners while giving the warehouse management the specific tools it needs.
THE FLIP SIDE Flip side
In the context of general equities, opposite side to a proposition or position (buy, if sell is the proposition and vice versa).
Customization has some detractors who feel that deviating too far from the original programs may lessen less·en
v. less·ened, less·en·ing, less·ens
1. To make less; reduce.
2. Archaic To make little of; belittle.
To become less; decrease. their effectiveness. "I'm always wary of customizing WMS packages to any significant degree," says Judith Kellogg, a software engineer and analyst from Houston. "These management software packages are supposedly based on the best practices for accomplishing whatever the task at hand may be. Once you start deviating from those best practices it can impact the integrity of the program, which may decrease its ability to manage the task effectively. Customization is, therefore, a tradeoff and the operator has to be aware of what he is actually gaining and losing when implementing an offshoot of a standard package."
There are other considerations to take into account when developing automation plans for the distribution center. One is the effect of new technology on the management system and warehouse operations, now and in the future.
Wireless communication is allowing the automation of more functions without laying miles of wires across the distribution center. Wireless and the Internet have made communication between the warehouse, the stores and the home office instantaneous in·stan·ta·ne·ous
1. Occurring or completed without perceptible delay: Relief was instantaneous.
2. , and have allowed for greater visibility across the whole supply chain.
The coming of age of RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) A data collection technology that uses electronic tags for storing data. The tag, also known as an "electronic label," "transponder" or "code plate," is made up of an RFID chip attached to an antenna. will add a greater degree of visibility and control, which will allow for even greater automation in the warehouse.