The brain at the centre of the intelligent warehouse

LinkedIn +

Warehouse management systems are a well established part of the logistics landscape, but warehouse innovations are placing new demands on their functionality. Malory Davies reports.

For many operations, warehouse management systems are simply part of the furniture and it is all too easy to overlook the innovations that are taking place – both with systems themselves and the warehouse technology that they must increasingly take into account.
Scott Zickert, group vice president, product management, supply chain execution and innovation at JDA Software, argues that WMS solutions have now become “comprehensive, real-time warehouse and distribution centre management systems, that skilfully handle real-world disruptions, driving improved performance and competitive edge, while maximising distribution centre value and providing greater return on supply chain investment. This will require edge sensory data and IoT to help drive efficient planning, tasking and order fulfilment processes. Optimisation will be achieved through cognitive and autonomous processes such as tasking, robotics orchestration and waveless execution.”
And Vishal Minocha, senior global product director at Infor, says: “There is a whole slew of innovations coming in this area.”
He points out that traditionally, applications like WMS, yard management, labour management, 3PL billing, transport management etc, have been deployed as individual products and then integrated after the fact. “This has resulted in process inefficiencies. Today’s modern products like Infor SCE provide all of this functionality in a single unified solution.”
Minocha points out that aspects of machine learning can help optimise various warehouse processes like labour planning, and slotting. And with true cloud WMS offering, users can choose to use community wide anonymised data to benchmark their warehouse against industry standards. He also highlights the value of visualisation – three-dimensional, colour coded, graphical rendering of real time inventory in the warehouse which provide actionable insights.
Both Red Ledge and TouchPath see increasing use of RFID. “RFID is enabling much faster processing of goods in and out,” says Alan Wilcockson, technical director of Red Ledge. “There is increasing automation and control of processes, including picking (because even picking using a voice or barcode system is still a worker-controlled process) – taking humans out of the equation.”
And David Myers, chief executive of TouchPath, says: “RFID is becoming more established. Warehouse automation is growing fast, from simple innovations such as automated conveyor systems to full robotic picking solutions. A WMS that not only decides which location a particular product/pallet should be put into but also commands the automated systems on how to get it there is now readily achievable.”
Augmented reality is key innovation for Eric Carter, solutions architect at Indigo, who reckons it is likely to transform the way a warehouse is mapped in the future and locations assigned for products – labelling individual items with barcodes will become obsolete. “Although some of the older generation warehouse workers find it futuristic, for millennials and the new generation who have grown up with gaming headsets and smart technology, it’s a totally logical way of working. For example, in the future, as an operative drives down an aisle, they’ll see a visual representation of an order with no scanning or confirmations needed – the system will direct you where you need to go and will be fully integrated with a WMS.”
Carter also highlights the importance of automation, arguing that it is essential for cost reduction. “Full automation may be on the horizon for larger manufacturers, but the vast majority of companies are taking a partial approach. This ensures they can maintain greater levels of flexibility and also helps to reduce the level of capital expenditure required. Many of the efficiency and accuracy benefits that come with automation can still be seen when conveyors and Kardex systems that have been integrated with a WMS, are added to control stock on a pick face.”
Artificial intelligence and machine to machine communications is already having an impact on the market, and that influence is set to grow. Red Ledge’s Alan Wilcockson says: “As a case in point Red Ledge has moved from warehouse management to warehouse management and control. Given automatic storage and retrieval, users do not need to know where goods are stored but using AI we can ensure goods are stored in the most appropriate place by intelligently predicting future demand. Complex mathematics generates stock prediction programs that anticipate when given inventory will be needed; we can then move it to a fast-moving or slow-moving area of the warehouse in advance so that it is ready for the moment when demand exists.”
“Machine to machine communications is a cornerstone for the internet of things, or IoT. In warehouse and logistics automation we can now use wi-fi, sensors and RFID to build inventory intelligence for the customer. Information is the key. The ability to capture everything in the storage and distribution process, including what happened, precisely where and when allows us to automate the micro-management of that process, and optimise it,” says Wilcockson.
Scott Zickert of JDA is clear: “With innovation shifts, such as robotics, driverless forklifts, wearable technology and AI, the warehouse we see today will change drastically in the near future to a more digital and autonomous environment. The WMS market will have to position itself to facilitate the transition through current functionality, empowering automation, leveraging an extensibility framework focused on configurability and encouraging experimentation and innovation.”
It’s a point taken up by Vishal Minocha: “As the usage of robots grow, WMS systems would need the ability to seamlessly connect with various external automation technologies. Tools to manage and orchestrate work flow across these various technologies would become much more important.”
Alex Mills points out that the information exchanged with a robotic system is actually no different to that exchanged with a truck-mounted, hand-held or voice-controlled terminal.
“Robotic and other M2M communication may imply a greater reliance on automation but properly designed WMS will be able to prioritise and allocate tasks appropriately to ensure all systems continue to function efficiently. Ultimately, the communication between the WMS and any other system will be managed by bespoke links or, even better, a set of open APIs.
“AI, it could be argued, is slightly different,” says Mills. “WMS have for many years been able to make decisions in real-time to prioritise warehouse processes and tasks to ensure efficient workflows and workloads while meeting dynamic order deadlines and targets. Although this is not true AI, the end result is similar in that WMS is adapting continuously to changing business conditions to deliver the optimum performance. True AI would imply the system is adapting and modifying itself in response to a changing working environment. There is no reason why such capability could not be integrated with current WMS, either by the original developer or by using a third-party add-on,” says Mills.
Mobile computing is another development that is having an impact on how WMS systems are being used. Eric Carter points out that user interfaces and dashboards are now being designed as mobile first. “The trend we first saw a few years ago where companies were using cheaper smartphones in rugged cases rather than investing in dedicated industrial devices has really taken off.”
JDA’s Scott Zickert believes that the development of mobile computing and persona-based control towers in the warehouse has empowered warehouse workers to take control of their business processes, providing greater efficiency to the organisation and higher job satisfaction to the worker.
“This enables workers to handle the most pressing warehouse operations issues immediately through intuitive workflows tailored to their role, while staying connected to overall warehouse operations’ performance. Users can flexibly respond to business demands both in and outside the facility without being locked down to a workstation.
“Further development to mobile computing has significantly improved both mobility and flexibility. No matter where they are, managers can now track and observe employees, executing their work on the floor, while allowing warehouse associates to accomplish tasks using touchscreens and visual guides on the floor,” says Zickert.
Alex Mills, sales and marketing director at Chess Logistics Technology and ProSKU, says: “WMS such as Empirica and ProSKU already support mobile technologies so that users can access some, if not all, information from any location.
ProSKU recently launched an Android app to allow users to access the system over their smartphones and tablets. Alex Mills says that using such a device avoids the need for specialist hand-held terminals and they may be appropriate for relatively low-use applications or for users not based in the warehouse. “However, industrial hand-held devices remain a better option when ruggedness, reliability or specialist functions (such as RFID scanning or label printing) are required.”
Cloud-based WMS systems are taking an increasing share of the market. Tony Dobson, chief executive at Snapfulfil, the cloud-based WMS system, argues that we are in the second phase of WMS development now, with web-based solutions that can be deployed anywhere.
We are seeing the first retirements of IT people, he says, arguing that this will result in both a cultural change and a technology change. And as that process goes on, organisations are going to miss out on system support.
He argues that there is a massive cost difference between the old technologies and the newest cloud-based systems. “Big monolithic systems are becoming too expensive to support,” he says. “Companies can’t believe how cheap we are.”
Mills argues that cloud-based solutions already offer rich set of features that meet the needs of many operators. “These applications will inevitably continue to adapt and evolve to meet requirements for even more capabilities.
“Indeed, one of the many advantages of a cloud-based system is that new and upgraded features can be implemented seamlessly whenever they become available so that users always have access to the latest and best solutions. With traditional hosted systems the preferred model is to deliver all upgrades in one go as a new ‘version’, which means all users are always slightly behind the latest technology and some even further behind if they choose not to upgrade at all.
“There is no doubt that cloud-based WMS will take a bigger share of the market, particularly among businesses with no previous WMS experience. For the time being, at least, users of conventional managed or hosted systems will retain their existing applications because of the potential disruption of migrating to the cloud unless they can identify a genuine advantage in making such a change,” says Mills.
And Infor’s Vishal Minocha argues that WMS systems today are just scratching the surface when it comes to realise benefits a true cloud solution can provide. “Most of the solutions in the market are just the same old on-premise architecture hosted on cloud. We, at Infor believe that a true cloud WMS should provide multi-tenancy, extensibility, elasticity and auto-scaling based on the performance and volume/demand fluctuation in a warehouse.”
Nevertheless there is still a lot of reticence in the market, says Eric Carter.
“A lot of companies already have perfectly adequate hardware and want to have the control of hosting their own applications on premise. They are also concerned about connectivity issues if they are in a location that doesn’t have the most reliable internet connections.”
TouchPath’s David Myers points out that WMS systems are mission critical to every business. “You can cope if your ERP system is unavailable for a few hours: but if your WMS goes down and you can’t ship for half a day you are in serious trouble. Having said that our customers have been running ‘cloud’ WMS for over 15 years albeit on an in-house server. We have customers serving WMS to more than 200 users at 20+ sites across Europe on a single server based at their IT centre in the UK.
Concerns about security, resilience and response times in putting those applications onto a third party-managed, truly cloud-based server have made the take-up slow but we are seeing more and more customers trialling moving their WMS into the cloud proper.”

What’s on the horizon

l Printable RFID: David Myers of TouchPath says printable RFID has been on the horizon for a while. “The big one is the industrial internet of things. TouchPath has just launched an IIoT system for manufacturers.”
l Autonomous self-learning robotics: JDA’s Scott Zickert looks forward to real-time locator positioning, self-guided drones, virtual reality experiences for hands-free execution and highly interactive mobile experiences that embed gamification. “These are just to name a few that are getting more acceleration and adoption.”
l Totally automated warehouses: Red Ledge’s Alan Wilcockson envisages a lights-out operation with no people on site. “In this scenario a ‘black box’ takes care of operations, putting stock away and delivering it to vans and trucks, with no human intervention. Self-driving lorries will come into use quickly, once self-drive cars are established.”
l Augmented reality: Alex Mills says that in a WMS context this could be where applications provide users with a realistic computer-generated view of the warehouse to help manage operations or model the impact of change etc. Another use of AR is to overlay CGI onto real-world images to provide more information about a specific product or provide on-the-spot training to users.
l Android: Snapfulfil’s Tony Dobson points out that its now possible to buy a £50 Android device that can operate as a warehouse scanner. It might not be as durable as a professional ruggedised device but the price will make it attractive to many. In time, he reckons, all devices will be Android.

Missing out

Tony Dobson, chief executive at Snapfulfil, points out that some of the leading e-commerce businesses are using paper-based systems. “There is still a lot of paper out there – about 60 per cent of the market has not been mined yet.”
Alex Mills of Chess and ProSKU, highlights the issue for smaller organisations. “The up-front investment of a fully-featured system can be hard to justify against other pressing business needs. At the same time the time frames involved and complexity of the configuration might not provide a solution to meet immediate business objectives and provide scalability for future growth. For these businesses, a feature-rich cloud-based solution delivered on a monthly price-per-seat basis can offer a more flexible and cost-effective alternative.”
Manufacturing companies are still often using paper-based processing in their warehouses, says Infor’s Vishal Minocha. Many are still managing their warehouses using their ERP or legacy systems which do not provide location bin level inventory tracking. “These older systems typically do not have barcoding or mobile/RF functionality, so they are forced to use paper based processing in their warehouses.”
The point is taken up by TouchPath’s David Myers. “Because they consider themselves to be primarily manufacturing organisation [they]would not necessarily look for a WMS solution or indeed recognise that it can add value to their bottom line.”

This article first appeared in Logistics Manager, April 2018

Share this story: