Changing demands put the spotlight on the WMS

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Is your warehouse IT keeping up with the rapid changes in the supply chain? Speed and flexibility are increasingly critical, and products are being updated to keep up with demand.

The rise of e-commerce is having an impact right across the supply chain – and nowhere more than in the demands placed on the warehouse management system. Systems that were once dedicated to taking in stock and releasing on a store by store basis, now also have to accommodate individual item picking – and in a more condensed time frame.

“With a record amount of online shopping carried out in December 2013 and close to one in five non-food items bought online during that month, according to the most recent survey from the British Retail Consortium, it’s not only the e-commerce specialists that need more sophisticated WMS systems to handle this growth online,” says Gavin Clark, Snapfulfil commercial director.

John Bailey, vice president of solutions consulting at JDA, points out that different sectors of the market have different drivers. In the grocery market there are choices to be made between in-store picking and dark stores, while click and collect is becoming increasingly important. JDA has just released the latest version of its in-store picking system which is designed to improve picking productivity reducing the time spent in the aisles.

The problem with store picking, of course, is that a store is laid out to attract customers – and retailers have plenty of strategies to attract customers to the most profitable products. But it means that store lay-outs do not make for the most cost-effective order picking operation.

And to maximise the efficiency of store picking it is necessary to have planograms that are store specific, says Bailey. He points out that the other problem with store picking is that you “haven’t got a clue about whether the products are really there”, referring to the fact that picking is going on at the same time as shoppers are taking goods from the shelves so a product might go out of stock in the middle of a pick run.

In contrast dark stores offer the nirvana of accurate inventory, he says. Not surprisingly there has been a move towards dark stores. Tesco and Waitrose have been developing their networks, and last autumn Sainsbury’s revealed plans to open its first dark store in East London.

In apparel there are issues around how to best manage e-commerce orders and returns. It’s all about the brand experience says Bailey. Fashion retailers are increasingly offering more sophisticated delivery options – requiring ever faster processing of orders. Next, for example, now offers next day delivery for orders placed by 10pm – and for £3 more you can get same day delivery on goods ordered by mid-day.

Exceptional value

Clark points out the growth in e-commerce is developing businesses at extraordinary rates and they are rapidly running out of room, moving to new premises or simply trying to do more with less and that’s where a WMS can really deliver exceptional value. However, despite the urgency, these new WMS customers are also demanding responsive and reliable systems in real time, with a high level of stock visibility and accuracy, as in their market a lost sale is often a lost customer for life.

Accuracy is a theme taken up by Access which has just produced a survey in which 33 per cent of respondents put improving the accuracy of their fulfilment operations at or near the top of their priority list.

“The error spiral inflicts direct cost and indirect damage; improving pick accuracy from 99.95 to 99.99 per cent may not look like a lot, but it is often the difference between success and failure,” says Ian Roper, divisional director, supply chain solutions at Access Group. “Given the systems available to companies large and small, which should ensure near-total accuracy, there is no forgiveness and no hiding place.”

The survey of warehouse operators was carried out for Access, by Redshift Research and is the subject of an accompanying White Paper: ‘Inaccuracy – what’s your excuse’. Redshift Research conducted the survey among 132 warehouse operators across the manufacturing, wholesale and 3PL sectors.

As the white paper and research reveal, some 56 per cent of firms are picking at least partially to paper instructions and a half use paper receipts for goods received. Yet the impossibility of paper-based systems reflecting the complexity found in today’s warehouses in real time should be obvious.

Roper says: “Real time WMS controlling the most appropriate combination of technologies such as Radio Frequency communications, bar-coding, voice picking and other systems, is the answer for picking quickly, accurately, and efficiently from fast-moving stock, and for the stock on the shelf to be replenished automatically as soon as needed.”

The research found that 35 per cent of respondents were using RF in the warehouse; 27 per cent were using mobile/handheld computers and 12 per cent were using RF hands-free headsets.

Less expensive

A key task of the WMS is to drive the picking function and Gavin Clark points out that developments in the areas of ‘Picking to Light’, ‘Goods to Man’ and other mechanical picking aids have made these solutions less expensive and more reliable than previously possible.

“Conveyors and automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS)  have always required massive financial investment and significant implementation cycles, much like the software responsible for controlling the warehouses themselves 20 years ago. WMS/WCS software is now more cost effective and affordable than ever before, but mechanised handling has always been slower to adapt due to the costs of raw materials involved. However, improvements in discrete manufacturing and innovative use of Android/iOS devices are bringing these ‘big ticket’ solutions down in price. Combining this mechanical automation with clever use of ‘off the shelf’ low cost mobile computing solutions has really given R&D departments something to work towards and we will see some terrific uses of these in the next 12 months.

“Item picking needs to be simple, fast and efficient, delivering higher throughput and lower resource requirements to cater for peaks and troughs without requiring temp staff,” says Clark. “Labour and exception reporting must be better and more able to highlight trends as well as specific incidents.”

Chess Logistics Technology has made extensive changes to its Empirica warehouse management system to increase the flexibility of ‘Pick and Pack’ functionality. The new features have been added to meet higher demand from existing customers and new business prospects, reflecting the increased use of this picking practice in retail distribution and internet fulfilment operation.

The new functionality supports simultaneous picking of multiple orders into separate handling media, reduces handling movements and enables more efficient picking paths.

Warehouse operations are simplified and create less congestion which leads to enhanced productivity, faster response times and improved overall efficiency. The new facilities allow variable PPM (pick and pack media, eg trolley or cage) to be used with a definable capacity of slots or carton spaces. One specific feature allows for zoning.

This allows pickers to work and be allocated orders within specific zones so that multiple pickers can operate simultaneously while avoiding aisle contention.

Cloud technology

SaaS / cloud based technology is revolutionising most aspects of IT, both business and consumer solutions and WMS is no different, says Gavin Clark of Snapfulfil. “Faster deployment, deeper functionality and the highest levels of reliability are core features of the Cloud, while these benefits are harder or more expensive to achieve with more traditional software deployments. This means that Cloud / SaaS vendors are able to focus on new features or methodologies, plus making use of the web-native platform to provide sophisticated web portals, along with easier and more reliable connections to complementary systems,” he says.

Stephen McCartney,
account director of
OBS Logistics, points out that the initial impact has been the ability it has given organisations more quickly to implement modern web based warehouse management systems, which they may not have had the capability, or drive, to do if they had had to jump through the various internal CAPEX and infrastructure installation challenges.

“The next challenge will be to deliver and implement more and more sophisticated warehouse solutions via the cloud perhaps hooking in other aspects of the supply chain or pulling together a variety of specialist third party solutions via the one cloud.”

Case study: New modules for Autostore WMS

Central Systems & Automation has introduced two software modules for its Autostore WMS.

The Workload Forecasting & Resource Management module enables users to assign people, stock and MHE simply and predictably across all warehouse areas based on forecast throughput. The Distributed System Management module connects two or more warehouses running independent Autostore WMS applications in a single, secure browser, delivering an enhanced view of operational data, site-by-site.

The Autostore Workload Forecasting & Resource Management module enables users to assess the manning levels required for the scheduled workload by applying pre-defined strategies over precise time periods. The module calculates the total man-hours required to carry out the workload – along with a breakdown of resource demand throughout each period.

Andrew McKaig, commercial director at Central Systems & Automation, says: “Both these new modules further enhance warehouse performance, delivering superior levels of secure operational visibility and resource predictability. The cumulative benefits drive improved real-time decision-making, productivity, accuracy, cost efficiency and crisper customer service – in the warehouse and through the supply chain”.

Case study: 50pc productivity boost for whisky specialist

Whisky specialist Gordon & MacPhail, reckons that the implementation of BCP’s Accord Voice WMS at its warehouse operation in Elgin, Scotland is delivering productivity increases of 50 per cent.

“The main driver for bringing in a Voice system for our business was looking at excellence of service within our wholesaling operation” says Neil Urquhart, Gordon & MacPhail director of logistics & facilities, who headed up the project.” 

The company was using a paper based system in the warehouse and looking to modernise, improve efficiency and visibility and to have the capacity to effectively handle future growth of the business. The flexibility and functionality that came with the BCP system proved decisive, says Urquhart.

The requirements at Gordon & MacPhail are complex as the wholesale operation supplies a range of different products to a range of different customers across the UK.  This could be one bottle of wine to a pub on a high street development, a pallet of one product to a national distribution centre for a multiple or a pallet of 250 different items, cases and bottles, to a specialist wine & spirit wholesaler.

Urquhart says: “We have a complex offering with over 4,000 products which we sell in either full cases, loose bottles or any combination demanded and we needed a system that had the flexibility and functionality to accommodate that complexity.”

One of the main benefits realised from the implementation of Accord Voice has been increased productivity – a 50 per cent increase in the number of cases picked per person and a 43 per cent increase in the number of lines per person. Picking accuracy was already good, but this has improved it further. “With the Accord system we now have full visibility of exactly when there’s an order picked and who picked it so if we do have picking errors occurring we can quickly identify exactly why they happened and go back, retrain and minimise that happening in the future.” 

The system has also allowed simplification and streamlining of administration behind the scenes and reporting on all the orders that have left the business so that invoicing can be done promptly to improve cash flow.  Savings on paper costs alone are running at £2,000 a year.

With the system bedded in, the company is now looking at how it can take on more of the functionality within it to make full use of its investment.

Case study: Proteus offers cost benefit analysis

Proteus, the WMS specialist, has designed a cost benefit analysis as an aid to selecting the most appropriate warehouse management system for a particular operation.

For a particular type of warehouse operation, decisions made for the most suitable system for clients to employ are governed by the picking methodology, the frequency of picks, and the size of the operation.

Proteus uses a Cost Benefit Analysis Grid to calculate operational costs, in terms of time and money for each system option based on the following criteria: number of warehouse operatives; number of picks, and number of order lines.

The criteria are then cross referenced with the type of task: put-away tasks; replenishment tasks, and picking tasks.

It is possible to view costs per pick, costs per operative over a 12-month period, and, says Proteus, can provide a valuable insight to ways to cut operational costs.

The Proteus WMS can be delivered in three options to the end user; paper based WMS, RF scanning and voice picking, with each method having its own benefits.

It can also operate as a multi-mode solution with all three options present in different areas of the same warehouse.

Using the analysis set Proteus can calculate the return on investment and give a fairly accurate timescale of when the system will pay for itself due to efficiency gains made, and the reduction in labour costs, also providing full visibility of the detailed calculations.

Case study: Aspray24 goes live with Access

Aspray24, the national 24-hour logistics firm, has gone live with warehouse management system Access Delta from Access Group.

Willenhall-based Aspray24 has implemented Access Delta into a purpose-built 60,000 sq ft warehouse with racking for 11,500 pallets and is managed by ten people in the warehouse team. The WMS is integrated with Aspray’s traffic system, providing immediate confirmation of orders and label printing.

Geoff Chater, head of logistics, says: “We needed a system to support operations in the new warehouse, gain full visibility of stock and improve productivity through the use of RF scanners. Speeding up the invoicing procedure and providing the business with access to a full suite of reports was also a priority. Access Delta has helped us to achieve this.”

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