Operational Simplicity in the Warehouse

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


In addition, Web-based analysis tools simplify operational improvements. Using data collected from daily operations (along with the right interface), non-technical operators can perform data/trend analyses; see instantly where improvements can be made; and act on the knowledge in real time—as opposed to needing highly-trained (and paid) business analysts to review reams of spreadsheets to come to the same conclusion a month later. Actions are taken when they can impact the business; and business analysts can be shifted to work that provides greater benefits to the organization.

In short, to be effective the entire operation has to be easy to control, manage and adjust. Otherwise, you’ve just traded one set of issues for a much larger and more complicated one.

Operational simplicity in action

One area where operational simplicity is a decided impact is in the liquor industry. In the traditional model, delivery trucks are loaded with like products stacked together—such as beer in one area or a particular brand of whiskey in another. When the truck arrives at each customer location, the driver checks a bill of lading and pulls the order. Because the driver has to be able to reach all products in the trailer, aisles need to be left between product stacks. This practice wastes a great deal of space.

With the new operational simplicity model, an automated system allows orders to be picked and sorted by customer location in route stop sequence at the distribution center, then loaded in reverse delivery order. When the driver arrives at the location, he simply pulls that specific customer order from the back of the truck and delivers it.

Since there is no need for aisles, the truck can be packed much more densely. While it requires a more sophisticated level of automation at the distribution center, this cost is more than offset by other efficiencies, including savings on driver time (driver costs are normally the highest cost in the distribution chain); driver fatigue; number of trucks required to deliver the same amount of product; gasoline; and wear and tear. Pre-picking orders in this manner also improves order accuracy, ultimately resulting in better customer service.

Down on the floor

While automation is widely deployed down on the floor in most of today’s distribution centers, the physical loading and unloading of trucks essentially remains a traditional manual process. Although strides do exist in this area, automated solutions are still limited to handling products of similar shapes and sizes. For example, consumer package goods (CPG) manufacturers use robotic truck loaders (RTLs) to load common footprint cartons of chips or other lightweight products.

Still, roughly 98 percent of truck loading and unloading is continually handled manually. Not because it’s preferred but because there are no products on the market right now that can load different-size cartons or pallets better, faster or more cost-efficiently than humans. That may change soon, however, as vision technologies are developed and deployed on robots. These technologies will allow the robots to recognize different sizes, shapes and configurations. They will also be able to make adjustments in how they load trucks based on what they “see.”

Just a bit further down the road, these same technologies will also change the way goods-to-person fulfillment is handled. They will make it possible for robots to recognize and select a box of pencils, three staplers and a dozen three-ring binders out of totes and put them together into a single order carton for a single customer. In this scenario, several robots would be managed by a single operator who solves problems and looks for ways to improve performance.

Impact on maintenance

There is one other aspect to operational simplicity that has to be considered in designing a materials handling system: what are the ongoing maintenance requirements?

You don’t want to have to bring in highly-trained specialists every time there’s a problem. If you’re doing that, the system may be down for a long time until the specialists can get to your facility to diagnose and fix the problem. Instead, you want your on-premises staff to be able to find the cause of issues and overcome them quickly—minimizing downtime as well as maintenance expenses.

Achieving operational simplicity for maintenance often requires additional considerations. For example, traditional motor-driven roller (MDR) conveyors relied on hard wiring each section back to a PLC. Yes, the operational benefits of reduced noise and energy consumption are true but if one of the sections stops working, the maintenance staff has to perform a series of tests and trial-and-error parts replacement to get it running again.

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