Real time warehouse management

With manufacturers increasingly under pressure to meet tighter deadlines, supply chain visibility is paramount. Katherine Crichton examines the latest technologies providing warehouse efficiencies.

With manufacturers increasingly under pressure to meet tighter deadlines, supply chain visibility is paramount. Katherine Crichton examines the latest technologies providing warehouse efficiencies.

IN today’s ‘fast food’ society, quicker is better, with customers expecting orders to be processed and delivered where and when they want it, fast.

Increasing efficiencies in warehouses and distribution centres is vital for manufacturers to successfully meet these demands, with Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) playing a major role in decreasing time to market.

In the past, a WMS was typically interfaced with an existing enterprise resource planning system (ERP) or an accounting package, simply tracking inventory, processing orders and handling returns.

However advances in technology is seeing these systems move from simple EDI (electronic data interchange) to real-time, collaborative information exchanges, driving cost reductions in both labour overheads and logistics.

According to John Miles, Enterprise Solutions Manager with Microsoft Australia, there are two fundamental developments in WMS for users and warehouse/distribution management.

“An enhanced capacity to capture data in real time, and the ability to service and share the information both outside the factory gates as well as internally, is allowing users to deal with exceptions in the supply chain immediately and effectively,” Miles explained.

“There is now an increased awareness of real-time collaboration between companies in the supply chain which is leading to better inventory planning systems and integration of these throughout the supply chain, increasing transparency in distribution and warehousing processes,” he said.

Miles also told Manufacturers’ Monthly advances in emerging track and trace technologies, such as RFID in the supply chain, is helping increase inventory accuracy and improve asset utilisation in manufacturing operations

We are seeing an uptake of WMS in a growing number of applications in retail, heavy industrial equipment, cosmetics, high tech electronics – organisations that have a high degree of complexity in their skews and where supply chain inventory velocity is absolutely critical to them,” he said.

Industry is realising the application of RFID technology is not just confined to inventory,” Miles said.

Supplying demand

Advances in technology coupled with lower hardware costs are making WMSs more common across a broader range of industries, but there are still some barriers preventing mass adoption of more sophisticated warehouse management technologies.

Nasir Razaayub, MD of Naxtor Technologies, says small, non-complex distribution facilities have historically not been viewed as candidates to significantly streamline operations and reduce costs, but says with decreasing hardware prices this is beginning to change.

“Smaller and midsize companies are starting to recognise the significance of WMS in today’s environment of integrated logistics, just-in-time delivery, and e-commerce fulfilment,” Razaayub said.

He told Manufacturers’ Monthly, because of price, the technology is still mainly used in larger warehouses and distribution centres.

“The implementation cost of the hardware can range from $50 -100k, or for a turnkey solution with all the networking, infrastructure and software systems in place, you could potentially be looking at around $150-200k.”

However Razaayub advises manufacturers to consider the ROI rather than just focussing on the initial investment costs.

“These technologies can provide an immediate payback. By automating traditionally paper-based systems, companies increase warehouse efficiencies and save time as well as money,” he said.

“WMS such as RFID, voice picking or a combination of both, can offer accuracy in business processes through increased pick rates, decreased errors, higher compliancy, and accurate forecasting of warehouse resources and demands.”

And with the increasing interoperability of WMS, the systems can now be integrated into warehouse equipment such as forklifts and stackers, where onboard computers can tell the location of an item and also where spare storage is located.

Razaayub explained that this kind of technology has many obvious benefits, especially in cold chain situations where companies shipping perishable goods in a FIFO (first in, first out) arrangement, without having to engage in time consuming manually checking and comparing dates.

Management decisions

Due to the influx of technology vendors in the marketplace, both Miles and Razaayub advise manufacturers to research the options available to ensure they get the best system and service for the particular requirements of their business.

“There are many companies selling individual hardware and software, and many projects can fail as people don’t have proper support or training,” Razaayub explained.

“Users need to be clear about what they want their warehouse system to do, as the business process and required outcomes for a manufacturer such as rates of accuracy, order lead times etc, is different to a wholesale distributer.”

Razaayub also says it’s essential that different departments in the company work collaboratively to ensure the process of automating is a smooth transition as possible to get the optimum benefits out of the system.

Miles explains that it is not only important for companies to have a solid business case, but also to fully understand what available technologies are available.

“This is important not just from a RFID perspective, but also from a voice picking, voice recognition and pick face optimisation.

“There are a whole array of technologies and some may offer real value to customers depending on the needs of their operations.

“WMS will never be effective if it isn’t integrated into the back office planning systems, ERP systems, and if its not integrated into performance orientated dashboards and portals to get executive insight.”

Miles also suggests manufacturers think about the scalability and extensibility and whether the underlying technology can be leveraged beyond the WMS.

“Think about the technology platform it will reside on and how inter-operable and integratable that technology platform is with messaging, emailing, portals, collaboration,” he said.

Microsoft Australia 02 9870 2221.

Naxtor Technologies 02 8916 644.

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