Gavin Parnell, Director of Go Supply Chain Consulting Limited, takes a look at technology in the warehouse – and how best to benefit from it
Big integrated automation installations have their place in large scale grocery and fashion logistics operations, but for the majority of warehouse managers this is not what technology in the warehouse means. Rather we are talking about IT systems: WMS and the input / output devices that interact with it; and tactical mechanisation or semi-automation where there is a clear case for it.
What I mean by ‘tactical mechanisation’ or ‘semi-automation’ is taking some discrete element of activity or travel and speeding it up or eliminating it from the process. Something that caught my eye recently was a remote controlled order picking truck – I won’t say who’s doing it because we are independent from any MHE vendors, but I thought it was a neat idea. The value of saving time in getting on and off the truck is obviously going to vary according to the order profile and this is the sort of thing where logistics consultants can independently model the benefits to a particular operation.
Another trend is towards ‘cloud based’ or ‘Software as a Service’ (SAAS) warehouse management systems. In tune with the growth in e-commerce and cloud based services generally, SAAS means rapid set-up and little or no capital investment, yet these are reasonably fully featured systems. Of course it doesn’t make sense for everyone – but for one thing it can be a much easier internal sell than a six figure capital project.
Despite the huge range of systems and configuration options on offer, we still see situations where software has not been implemented well and the client is not getting all the benefits they should. It’s really important for companies to map out their requirements fully and work closely with their chosen vendor to deliver working processes. The detail is really important here and a few days spent with a flip chart getting the key operational stakeholders involved usually pays off.
WMS still needs to get smarter and I think we will see more of this – for example, systems should be using optimisation to determine the best pick route for every individual pick walk. This can save 10% or more off travel distance in some operations, which is significant.
On the subject of input / output devices, I expect the trend towards wearable tech to continue. There are a couple of examples around of augmented reality (AR) applications. Imagine using AR glasses (think ‘Google Glass’) to direct pickers on exactly the right route and to highlight the correct product unit to pick, even where to place it on the pallet for optimum pallet fill and stability. All of this is within the capability of current technology.
Whatever technology you choose to implement in the warehouse, the key is to approach it in a systematic way, with the end goals of the warehouse in sight. Build an awareness and take a holistic view – the warehouse design working together with WMS and mechanisation. Choose appropriate technology for the scale and complexity of the warehouse, and ensure the benefits are clear.
Of course it’s not always just about a financial business case – you can also consider service quality, capacity and releasing management time – in short providing a platform for business excellence and growth.
Finally, a post implementation review is always recommended to verify the benefits of any technology adoption and to identify any lessons to carry forward to future projects.