Naxtor Technologies , providers of Warehouse Management Systems for inventory tracking and stock control, have discussed the positive effects of Information Technology (IT) on the warehouse operations.
New innovations are streamlining the supply chain and increasing the efficiency of today's technologies. Every warehouse stands to benefit.
Many of the new warehousing solutions mix the old and the new. The old: technologies such as warehouse management systems, which have been around for a while. The new: software and information technology enhancements. In fact, these innovations are not only giving old technology new efficiencies, but they are also tweaking direct-to-customer distribution and fulfilment activities.
Pick-to-light systems have been given the IT makeover. Newer versions of pick-to-light systems are virtually touch-free. Previously in pick-to-light, the picker had to push a button when he had finished the task. Now newer systems of this long-standing technology have sensors, which detect when the picker's arm is in a pre-designated spot in the picking area. Some even feature RF scanning, which doubles the accuracy.
Warehouse management systems (WMS) have also significantly gained in functionality and now provide solutions to current challenges such as downsizing inventory. This is a big concern because of two factors.
First, warehouse managers are operating in a buyer's market, with customers demanding quicker delivery with value-added service. Second, buying patterns have shifted—orders are smaller and more frequent. New warehouse management systems address these issues and trim the supply chain. They are not only more functional, but they can easily interface with other technologies.
Many WMS applications enable automation while working with both ordering and shipping systems and logistics routing programmes. These capabilities ensure the smooth flow of merchandise.
At Helzberg Diamond Shops in Missouri , the WMS receives fulfilment recommendations based on the business activity at each of its 235 jewellery stores. The WMS then gives data to all the warehouse automation. “For us, automation vastly increases accuracy and speed,” says Orlando Jagoda, IT vice president at Helzberg.
Even small warehouses can benefit from IT improvements. Small operations can bring partial automation to their facilities through emerging Internet-based services. Application service providers (ASPs) are driving this phenomenon. They let thousands of small warehouses execute operations, which were previously not possible without complicated and expensive warehousing technologies.
According to Ken Ackerman, President of the Kenneth B. Ackerman Company, an Ohio-based supply chain management service, an ASP is a Net-based system whereby the user pays per transaction.
Ken Ackerman also added that the same idea Xerox came up with 40 years ago when the company sold copies in lieu of copy machines. ASP is still in its infancy, but it will open IT to small warehouses. There are people selling this right now, and over time it will have an innovative effect on the industry.
Material handling solutions that are on the IT edge include wireless technologies such as Palm Pilots and Ethernet bridges that can connect several locations to one network. In addition, robotics and automated picking technologies are easier to use, more compact and more efficient.
Automated pallet loaders now use driverless vehicles or embedded platforms that elevate before releasing loads inside a trailer. In fact, most automated picking equipment moves around guided by rails. They pick products from shelves and place them in containers. Since experts say that approximately 60% of all picking activity consists of travelling, these robotic advancements significantly increase productivity by eliminating unnecessary strolling.
Voice or speech recognition is also gaining in acknowledgment. This warehouse option frees both hands of the worker, boosting his productivity. It is becoming easier to use. Workers no longer have to adjust vocal inflection so that the programme can identify what is being said. Instead, users give speech samples to the system to memorise. In fact, the new versions of this technology can interpret a range of languages and accents.
Speech recognition may even make warehouse radio frequency (RF) technology obsolete, assert many material handling experts. Parcel delivery services already show this trend. At Conney Safety Products, a safety equipment distributor in Wisconsin, speech recognition is the preferred choice.
With RF, “you have to stop what you're doing, scan the item, and pick the ticket,” says John Swartz, Vice President of Operations. “That's a big negative time-wise, so big that we've decided not to go the route of RF at all. With voice recognition the worker doesn't have to scan anything.”
Radio frequency may avoid becoming outmoded because of its own IT advancements. RF identification tags have successfully tracked trailers, rail cars, marine containers and other costly items. Embedded or attached RFID tags contain data, which can be retrieved by low-wattage radio waves. This can be sent to a computer or saved on other digital devices to be uploaded later.
RFID will work even without direct line of sight, and non-metallic objects such as trees will not obstruct radio wave transmissions. “RFID holds great potential for material handling,” says John M. Hill, Principal of Ohio-based eSync International, a supply chain systems consulting and integration company.
“The trouble is it's far too expensive right now. You can afford to spend $50 or $100 on an RFID tag if the object is to identity rail cars, and be willing to spend a little less if you're tracking automobiles. But the price per tag in a warehouse will have to be less than five bucks if there's going to be a payoff.”
Total interoperability is a fast approaching IT reality. The material handling industry has tried in recent years to achieve interface standardisation so that different equipment and information systems can “talk” to each other.
Experts say this would be a remarkable step, removing the need to adjust software every time there is new hardware. While total interoperability may be a few years away, task interleaving has already arrived on the warehouse floor. This new technology combines warehouse management jobs to decrease travel time.
For example, warehouse forklifts, which pick up pallets and take them to another part of the warehouse, can be programmed to complete another task on their way back instead of returning empty-handed.
Data warehousing is another IT-driven warehousing solution. Data warehousing notes trends and what SKUs are selling over a period of time. Then utilising trend analysis and statistical process control, it makes recommendations about where merchandise should be placed in the warehouse. Items in high demand are made more accessible while slower-moving ones are consigned to less-explored places.
“We're at the stage with this stuff now where many fundamental problems have been licked,” says Larry Shemesh, Vice President and Principal of Gross amp; Associates, a New Jersey-based material handling consulting firm. Total automation, he says, is “doable, but it won't happen overnight.”