Core concerns

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It might be thought that warehouse management is pretty much a mature product but while the core functionality is well-defined there are a number of areas that are ripe for development.

Paul Cox of AquiTec says: “Retailers now expect core WMS functionality to include a suite of integrated applications including labour management, all running off a single database. However, in the next few years, the need to align WMS functionality with a wider range of business processes beyond the four walls of the distribution centre is going to become more important for retailers and vendors alike.

“Retailers are also looking at aligning WMS systems with other business processes, such as transport to improve supply chain efficiency. For example, retailers are putting in increasingly complicated cross-docking networks to take significant costs out of the distribution network by reducing empty running and increasing the frequency of store deliveries.”

Alex Mills of Chess Logistics Technology, points out that demand for seamless services which support supply chain performance improvement is driving WMS suppliers to innovate and integrate. “New capabilities are being devised that allow users to combine their WMS with upstream and downstream processes to deliver cost savings through reduced human intervention.

“Modern warehousing is about real time operational flexibility and added value. Efficient utilisation of space remains important but performance is now measured more by stock turn rates than racking occupancy. Better processes reduce costs by eliminating errors and removing wasteful tasks. The trend has always been to maximise stock availability.”

Both Cox and Mills agree that voice technology has had a dramatic impact in warehouse operations.

“The first generation of voice technology was largely focused on the picking function, but the latest set of voice improvements can be applied to a much wider range of tasks including receiving, replenishment and put-away. For most retailers now it is a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’, with the majority of customers favouring a phased implementation, so that the technology pays for itself through increased efficiency,” says Cox.

“Looking further ahead, there are some interesting developments in voice technology coming down the line, particularly in the area of wearable devices, which will extend the range of warehouse functions it can be applied to even further.”

Mills points out that one Chess customer reduced picking errors by 50 per cent following the introduction of wireless voice controlled order picking, reduced costs, eliminated vast amounts of paper and improved allocation of resources. Halving errors has resulted in improved service to customers because fewer items are lost or delivered erroneously.

“An industrial products supplier implemented a novel combination of Empirica and automated storage and retrieval systems. Picking is managed by Empirica which interfaces with RF terminals and the storage system to synchronise and direct the movement of items to the picking face in the correct sequence. A laser pointer highlights the location of items so that staff can identify them quickly and easily. The customer predicts it will improve overall picking productivity and accuracy and reduce resource utilisation by around one third.”

The return on investment from voice picking makes it an obvious target for consideration by warehouse operators but Paul Cox believes that labour management should also be considered a core element of WMS functionality that can deliver immediate productivity gains through a better-organised and motivated workforce.

He says: “The beauty of an integrated labour management system is that it produces all the statistics and reporting requirements needed to optimise scheduling, set performance expectations and manage the work load more efficiently across the workforce.”

RedPrairie reports significant growth for its workforce management system in Europe. Managing director Martin Hiscox says: “Forward-thinking companies are astutely recognising the significant savings and competitive advantage provided by WFM solutions.”

The Works, which sells value books, crafts and gifts, recently selected RedPrairie’s workforce management to optimise labour management at its Sutton Coldfield distribution centre. The system enables organisations to increase productivity, optimise resources and reduce supply chain costs.

Cost savings come through the establishment of preferred work methods and accurate expectations for work tasks, taking into account actual travel distances, product characteristics and environmental factors, and a comprehensive training approach that creates a performance focused workforce.

Diane Smith, supply chain manager at The Works, says: “One of our key corporate initiatives is the continued expansion and growth of the business. To ensure success, our supply chain must become even more adaptable and responsive to the needs of our end customer. As our people are the backbone of our supply chain, investment in this area was an easy decision.”

The arrival of 3M in the UK warehouse management system market is a clear challenge to the established players such as RedPrairie and Manhattan Associates.

The acquisition of High Jump Software made 3M into a leading player in the market in the US and it is pushing hard in the UK. It reckons the strength of its product is the ability to adapt to any supply chain requirement without impacting on the core code leading to a lower cost implementation and upgradeability into the future.

The latest release of its HighJump Software “Supply Chain Advantage” product suite contains a series updates to meet demand for new warehouse management system functionality as well as including a host of new platform capabilities intended to help global companies roll-out the product across multiple countries and businesses.

One of the new languages supported is Polish – a key requirement considering the growing number of Eastern Europeans starting work in UK warehouses every year.

Hugh Murphy, UK business manager of 3M’s supply chain division, says: “The adaptable architecture of our software allows users to choose the language they work in, so a Polish worker can work in his native language alongside colleagues working in English. Customers tell us this improves productivity as well as job satisfaction.

Dematic the logistics automation specialist, has also moved into the market and is now selling its warehouse management system as a standalone package. Previously, the Banbury-based company only supplied software as part of complete turnkey projects that also incorporated Dematic automated handling technology.

Managing director Thomas Borghoff says: “The logistics automation market is now very much a software-driven environment. Given our experience and expertise in delivering successful WMS packages for some of the UK’s most demanding supply chains, it clearly makes sense to begin marketing the software in its own right.”

Dematic has created a new sales channel concentrating on the software side of the business headed by Deborah Pope targeting blue-chip retailers, FMCG manufacturers and e-commerce/catalogue-based fulfilment centres.

Alex Mills sees an emerging trend in provision of key performance indicator information to help logistics service providers measure, confirm and improve their performance across a wide range of parameters.

“Another enabling technology growing in popularity is RFID. This offers the prospect of tracking specific items through the supply chain and adding value with processes based on the data storage and interaction capabilities of the tags.

“RFID is supported by Empirica but it must be understood that the technology is simply an information enabler. How the information is processed is what matters and that comes down to the WMS and wider enterprise systems.”

Mills also points to a trend towards greater integration while at the same time introducing new facilities to support innovation. “This includes, but is not limited to, widening the scope of the WMS to support more efficient route planning and vehicle loading to help maximise the performance of the delivery fleet. The use of the WMS to support resource planning and scheduling is becoming increasingly important, for example to balance picking rotas or accommodate flexible working practices.”

Retail customers are visualising a transparent supply chain, says Cox. “As the retail sector moves towards ‘post lean’ supply chain designs, integration is an issue that is going to become increasingly important in WMS technology decisions in the next few years. WMS vendors need to demonstrate that they deliver the integration capability that retailers’ need to deliver on their strategic plan over a one to five year period.”

Catalyst has been developing its yard management module arguing that most shipping delays are in the yard rather than on the road and an effective yard management system can increase distribution centre throughput by as much as 15 per cent.

Steve Barker, vice-president of sales and marketing, EMEA, says that all too often the yard is a hole in the supply chain system – visibility is needed to be able to optimise. He points to one customer that had trailers turning up unscheduled at the distribution centre and this meant that they were having to queue in the road.

The system automates appointment scheduling with carriers and balances the workload. It also provide carrier performance reporting. It can be deployed centrally to control many yards at one time for tracking inbound and outbound shipments. Movement from DC to DC is tracked along with movement in each yard.

The software will integrate with Catalyst’s WMS or it can be used as a standalone system. Barker describes it as “resource-light” – it can be set up in four weeks and can have a payback time as little as six months. “The more complex the yard, the bigger the return,” he says.

Proteus Software argues that continually evolving advances in technology have allowed supply chain professionals to plan their operations with great degrees of accuracy. In the warehouse the use of radio frequency technology, bar code scanning, RFID, voice (or speech) picking has optimised warehouse operations. WMS providers have had to be visionaries of how to use the right technology in the right place.

In some warehouse operations barcode scanning will be the most appropriate solution. In others voice picking will be more appropriate, for example extreme environments such as cold stores, it says.

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