Spotlight on Warehouse Management and Distribution Centre Automation
The basic function of a warehouse is to provide an efficient means to store inventory and to dispatch ordered goods in a timely manner to the next node in the supply chain, be it a downstream assembly plant, a retail outlet or the point of final consumption. The systems that run the warehouse are designed to enable an efficient and unrivalled goods distribution operation by optimising the way personnel, inventory, and equipment are all managed. Typically the Warehouse Management System (WMS) focuses on the first two – so optimising the way orders, inventory and people are deployed to respond to changing demand patterns - whilst the Warehouse Control System (WCS) focuses on the third – the optimal usage of the available transport means and storage methods, otherwise known as materials handling equipment (MHE), and controlling them in an integrated fashion. Examples of MHE might include conveyors, sorters and automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS).
Whilst there is some functional overlap between what the two broad system types offer and whilst there is some debate as to the need for both types of system in certain operations, it has become a widely accepted view that the more complexity and the more pressure that exists within a supply chain, the greater is the need for the two types of system to be present. In the retail industry, for example, with the non-stop growth of e-commerce and the gradual reality of 'everywhere commerce', where mobile technologies allow customers to decide where, when, and how to shop, organisations have been scrambling to keep up not only with their competition, but with their customers as well. This has put exceptional pressure on supply chains, globally. Having to operate, simultaneously, in all channels, retailers have sought any way possible to increase efficiency and speed in their warehouse operations.
The key though - to truly optimise operations, maximise efficiency and increase DC velocity - is to get both the WMS and the WCS working together in a finely tuned, synchronised and seamless way. Achieving this is critical to success in sophisticated, high volume, multi-channel operations.
'Seamless integration' though is not always easy in the real world as the two types of systems are built to solve different problems and are developed by separate groups of software vendor. In recent years the latest technological advances on both sides have significantly improved the integration while increasing flexibility and lowering implementation costs.
In previous versions of a leading WMS for example, the system would go through its business logic and at specific points in the workflow would send a data message to an external system, like a WCS, via a predetermined communication protocol. In more recent releases of the ths WMS product, there have been several significant enhancements in the area of WCS integration. The first relates to the identification of all relevant message creation points within the valid workflows. Having identified all the message points, the system now enables users to simply turn a specific message on or off via an easy to use configuration screen. The second enhancement involves the creation of a straightforward configuration screen that allows a non-technical resource to configure the communication protocol(s) to be used to transmit the data between the WMS and the WCS for the various messages. The third enhancement involves the creation of a sophisticated message mapping rule configuration module that allows the content of messages to be defined and dynamically constructed based on business rules and data settings – instead of hardcoded programming logic. These advancements reduce project risk, the time required to do a project, and the cost of ownership.
So what is considered 'best practice' in this new world of integration? Firstly, particularly within a highly automated, complex warehouse environment, it is critical to ensure that both the WMS and WCS are leveraged. Secondly, it is important to ensure a configurable approach is adopted as opposed to the older, hard-wired approach. Finally, it is crucial to understand that exceptions to the rule will always occur and therefore to ensure that exception management and exception processing are incorporated into solution design and implementation.
Other than the new, configurable protocols in the latest WMS versions, what does the future hold for WMS/MHE integration? WMS innovation and distribution centre automation will continue.
Manhattan Associates, for example, is constantly identifying enhancements for future versions. The company originally built in integration for pick-to-light and carton shipping sorter integration, but so much more is happening now in the automation arena. For example, a relatively new MHE vendor has come to market with small pod-style robots (roughly the size of a chair base) that navigate the warehouse, transport a shelf of inventory, and bring it to the order fulfilment associate. This completely flips the paradigm. The worker does not have to move, but rather stays in place, in an ergonomically designed station while the product is brought to them. On the software side, an increasingly popular approach is "wave-less picking". Essentially, this strategy involves dynamic WMS/WCS integration on a real-time basis versus a batch approach. This allows greater manipulation of the tasks and the sequence of tasks in the queue. The result is an improved order fulfilment process thanks to increased utilisation of the inventory, the people, and the material handling equipment – all of which are expensive assets to waste.
Lastly, many automation-minded companies have leveraged voice directives (text to speech) and voice recognition (speech to text) as another way to improve the order fulfilment process in certain areas of the distribution centre. Voice solutions allow associates to work more freely, with both hands, and with their head up, focused on the travel, safety, and the task at hand. So whether it's next generation mini retrieval robots, dynamic work task assembly and assignment, or voice-based processes, the WMS/WCS integration capabilities will be front and centre when it comes to delivering the required flexibility and lower total cost of ownership.
Contributed by: Michael Badwi, Managing Director, Supply Chain Junction