Automation in the Warehouse and DC Is a Matter of If, Not When

Most people don’t like change. And when it comes to business, implementing new strategies or technology solutions to mitigate company functions can often be met with questions and sometimes even fall on deaf ears. But for those in the warehousing and distribution center (DC) space, effective workflow efficiency is a must. Operators in such industrial spaces don’t have the time to hesitate at adopting methods that will make their jobs easier; enable them to cut down on time and operating costs; improve equipment utilization rates; and prepare goods for on-time shipping and delivery. This especially holds true even more so for operators in this space, confirmed IRLY IT Project Manager Steve Cain, as old issues in the warehouse and DC space have been replaced with new issues that remain a challenge.

“It is a challenge to put in a new set of equipment,” said Cain at the recent PackExpo show in Chicago. “You have to be competitive to survive. The ones that have been in the warehouse for 30 or 40 years—they have to adapt to new technologies to stay competitive. Some of them won’t survive. And with some, it will take longer to train. But for IRLY, implementing voice and warehouse management systems improved workers morale—but you have to do it the right way.”

Can the continuous introduction of new technologies and software solutions in supply chain become, at times, information overload? Sure. Can finding a “least cost” operating model that benefits both the warehouse operators, DCs and 3PLs be difficult? Yes.

But the bottom line is that many business processes are using automated solutions for efficient data tracking and utilization—and in an area where mobility is key, the warehousing and DC space is no exception. Perhaps even more pertinent now is the fact that those at the operational level are requesting such adoptions and more information on ways to make their processes more effective and time-efficient.

“Any changes to the process of our customers can be disruptive—but often times, it is at the request of the customer that we’re presenting them with a new technology, whether it’s because they need to meet a compliance need or a regulation,” explained Bruce Stubbs, Director, Industry Marketing, Intermec Inc. “In any event, there is a business case involved.”

“For Intermec it’s not about changing the same technology so often as much as it is an OEM-sensitive issue,” added Dan Albaum, Senior Director of Marketing for Intermec. “For us, it’s about developing the platform. When we design technology solutions, we design them with custom features.” As a result, customers don’t always have to be trained on new technology. Instead, customizations and new capabilities are done minimally over time to enable operators to become familiar with the technology and leverage it to the point where they are utilizing all of its benefits effectively. “Ruggedness and long lifespan is what matters,” said Albaum. “That is what we hear from our customers. It doesn’t financially pay if a customer has a solution that breaks often. Thus, we don’t rush into the cosmetic product enhancements—our enhancements are for the long-term.”

Cain also added that finding a solution that works for ones operations can be, at times, more important than necessarily continuing to update your space with the latest and greatest innovations available. Nor do you have to have a massive amount of funds in order to initiate a proactive strategy.

In the case of Surrey, British Columbia-based IRLY—which distributes lumber, hardware and other raw and building materials to customers throughout British Columbia and Canada—the benefits of transitioning from a paper-based system to a streamlined WMS helped the company track errors and define the root-cause analysis of such issues. It implemented PathGuide Technologies’ Latitude WMS software coupled with Intermec’s CK3 mobile computers and PM4i printers, which helped boost productivity by an average 10 percent upon initial implementation. Additionally, Cain confirmed that the technology implementation helped IRLY overcome two of its biggest challenges in the areas of mis-shipments and inaccuracies in the distribution process.

Other trends that will continue to affect the warehousing and DC space include:

 

  • Picking to move into the after-markets parts space, i.e., applying picking for forklift applications and implementing it into areas such as packing operations.
  • Total solutions across the entire distribution center—including capturing data at the point of harvest and throughout the transportation process—will be a key target with the final mandate of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) set for finalization in December 2012. As a result, there is a potential increase of RFID technology adoption to target traceability issues.
  • Cloning adoption to drive efficiencies for complete integration and interoperability between devices deployed in such warehousing and DC areas.

 

As operators continue to look for ways to address inefficiencies in their warehouse and DC space and transportation workflows, rugged and mobile solutions and new strategies will have to be put in place. Is there a long road ahead of them in doing so? Perhaps, as labor shifts continue with seasonality changes. But as the old adage goes—if you don’t keep up with the times, you may get left behind. And that is a risk that warehouse and DC operations cannot afford to take.

Stay tuned for a closer look at how new technologies and strategies are changing the warehouse and DC space. More to come in February 2013.

Natalia Kosk

Associate Editor, Supply & Demand Chain Executive

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