Operational Simplicity in the Warehouse

From operations to reporting and adjusting to equipment maintenance—it takes more than automation to keep your operation moving


Whenever the term “operational simplicity” is used, it calls to mind the poster that makes the Internet rounds every now and then displaying a hot, new word processing device. The features it touts are that it is very lightweight, fits in your pocket, never loses power or requires a battery charge, and makes corrections quickly and easily. Of course, the “device” pictured is a No. 2 pencil.

In some ways, the materials handling world faces a similar dilemma. There is frequent talk about the importance of creating operational simplicity. Yet, at times we wind up over-engineering the very technology used to achieve it.

What often results is a shifting of the complexity. For example, an operation that once required one minimum-wage worker to pull three staplers out of a tote and ship them, now takes a phalanx of specialists trained to run the automated machinery. Any apparent gains have been transferred—and we’ve merely shifted where the money is being spent.

True operational simplicity means making automated systems both easy to operate and easy to maintain. But achieving that goal requires a fairly sophisticated design behind the scenes. That’s where you want your Ph.D’s and other “big brains” working. But the user interface portions should be as simple and intuitive as possible, so their day-to-day operations can be managed by nearly anyone with a minimal amount of training.

It’s like Apple’s approach to the iPhone and iPad. It’s unlikely anyone would think those aren’t pretty sophisticated examples of intricate technology “under the hood.” But all of that complexity was incorporated with a goal to create a user experience that is so simple nearly anyone can start using its many features with little to no training; and so rich it builds user loyalty the more it’s used. In fact, unlike nearly every other piece of technology you can own, these devices don’t even come with an instruction manual. That is the strength of Apple’s belief in their simplicity.

Naturally, you can’t launch a sophisticated materials handling system without some sort of documentation and training. But the goal should be to make the requirement as minimal as possible in order to create the same type of rich user experience that focuses on the intended outcome—instead of focusing on how to use the tools.

Automation versus operational simplicity

It’s important to differentiate between automation and true operational simplicity. While they are related, they are not the same.

Just because operations are automated doesn’t mean they are simple. Take, for example, a distribution center with a series of one-off automated solutions such as ASRS replenishment; light-directed picking; and package conveyors and sortation.

Because each of these solutions was implemented as a stand-alone technology, what you have is a facility with multiple islands of automation—each with their own servers and screens to monitor. Every system may require a dedicated person with specific training and expertise to oversee the operation of that technology. So while this setup brings some of the benefits of automation, it’s still personnel-heavy and requires constant nose-to-screen vigilance and coordination.

To achieve actual operational simplicity, you must first replace these automation islands with a holistic system architecture running on a single system software and controls spine. This method facilitates the use of Web-based business analytic tools to manage by exception. As long as the operations remain within pre-set parameters, no attention or intervention is required. Should one of the units go outside those parameters, a proactive alert is sent or an alarm sounds so an operator can pull up that screen and handle the problem with a few touches, clicks or swipes. It’s quick, precise and efficient.

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