The warehouse is all about moving and storing resources. Opportunities for performance improvements must focus on certain aspects of warehouse operations -- minimizing the movement and handling of inventory, streamlining the handling process to be as efficient as possible and making the best use of the storage space available. Fortunately, warehouse technology can help greatly in pursuing all three of these goals.
Minimizing movement. Warehouse management system (WMS) software takes the lead on this task. Basic WMS functionality includes 'directed put-away,' which can identify the closest appropriate location, and 'directed picking,' which computes the shortest and most efficient route through the aisles when gathering product for shipping. Mechanical automation – such as conveyors, robots, autonomous vehicles and automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) -- can take care of much of the heavy lifting, but these devices can be expensive to install and are less flexible than manned lift trucks and carts.
Moving things efficiently. Here's where the mechanical devices mentioned above really shine. The 'directed' WMS functions also play a key role in maximizing the labor efficiency and effective use of the material handling equipment.
Use of space. In conjunction with the mandate to minimize handling, the WMS location function – meaning where to put things and where to pick them from -- is also responsible for making the most effective use of space. Without WMS, it’s customary to store items in designated locations. Once some of the inventory is used, the remaining space in that location is emptied in anticipation of the next shipment. A random location system can direct incoming goods to any location with the right size and shape, therefore maximizing the remaining space.
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The warehouse technology that is available to managers can be beneficial in a number of ways. Carousels, for example, can store parts efficiently in bins attached to vertical track loops. Tied to picking and fulfillment software, the carousel spins to position the right row of bins in front of the picker, sometimes with a display in front of the bin indicating how many to pick. Similar 'pick-to-light' features can be attached to gravity-fed picking racks. The objective is to eliminate paperwork and speed up the picking process.
Voice systems free up both of the picker's hands by speaking the instructions to the picker and listening for confirmation through a headset microphone. A good example of this type of warehouse technology is a state-of-the-art picking system is Amazon's Kiva System mobile racks. Rather than having the picker go to the inventory, the Kiva racks bring the inventory to the picking station.
Less exotic and more ubiquitous forms of warehouse technology are also being used to enhance performance. Smartphones and tablets can serve the same function as the aforementioned voice systems -- without freeing up the hands, of course -- by displaying the pick list in the most efficient sequence possible for minimum travel. Workers can also use these devices to accept confirmation of picking activity on their touch screens. Tablets can put all warehouse information literally at the fingertips of warehouse managers and supervisors wherever they happen to be -- in the warehouse, in the plant or office, outside storage yard or even at home or on vacation.
Barcodes are still the default methodology for automated identification because they are inexpensive yet very functional. Scanner technology continues to improve, offering better read capabilities and radio-frequency connection for continuous communication with management systems. Radio frequency identification (RFID) is beginning to have an impact, but is unlikely to replace barcodes for individual product identification except in certain circumstances. However, this technology is beginning to show benefits when it comes to identifying pallets, crates and other groups of items, as well as providing automatic scanning of goods as they move through doorways, portals, and onto and off of vehicles and shipping containers. Combined with the barcode scans of the goods as they are loaded into and onto the pallets and crates, this technology all adds up to unprecedented level of tracking, to an extent that could only be dreamt of just a few years ago.
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