Increasing Efficiency of Warehouse Operations

Rugged PCs offer wireless solutions to warehouse inefficiencies


The challenge of responding to the threat of cheap offshore labor is not new to North American businesses. Nearly a hundred years ago, Henry Towne wrote about the need for increased efficiency and productivity:

"We are justly proud of the high wage rates which prevail throughout our country, and jealous of any interference with them by the products of the cheaper labor of other countries. To maintain this condition, to strengthen our control of home markets, and, above all, to broaden our opportunities in foreign markets where we must compete with the products of other industrial nations, we should welcome and encourage every influence tending to increase the efficiency of our productive processes."— Foreword to Frederick Winslow Taylor's Shop Management (1911)

Efforts to improve efficiency over the past century have often focused on the reduction of waste, defined as processes and resources that represent direct costs and opportunity costs but do not add any value.

The elimination of muda, the Japanese term for waste, is at the core of the Lean Manufacturing management philosophy promoted by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, also known as Just In Time. He listed the seven wastes: defects, transportation, human motion, waiting, inventory, over-processing and over-production and an eighth waste, underutilized skill, was later added to the list.

Inefficient Warehouse Operations

At least the first four of these eight wastes are prevalent in current warehouse operations. Many warehouse and distribution center operations continue to suffer from significant inefficiencies, as forklift operators waste time and resources hunting and digging because they lack adequate information on the location of items and the optimal route for putaway, replenish and retrieval actions, says Michael Giuliano, the president of Meridian Research and Development LLC.

Giuliano has advised automobile manufacturers and large consumer goods producers on the application of Lean Manufacturing principles to warehouse logistical operations. We all know what it is like to lose your keys and have to search around the house for them. Imagine the inefficiencies and frustrations involved when forklift operators waste time searching around the warehouse. It is not unusual for our analysis to determine, for example, that 2.5 minutes are wasted during the average retrieval cycle, and that figure is multiplied by hundreds or thousands of cycles per week.

On the opposite end of the efficiency spectrum, newly constructed high-tech warehouses are designed from the bottom up to automate most or all operations. Elaborate cranes, conveyor belts and robotic systems are coordinated to perform put-away and retrieval operations with little or no human intervention. These operations are highly efficient, but the high capital requirements make them cost-prohibitive for most types of warehouse operation.

Equipping Forklifts with PCs

A more practical and affordable solution for many new and existing warehouses is to empower operators by installing an onboard computer on each forklift, making the location of items and empty storage space immediately visible.

Rugged PCs, with user-friendly touch-screen user interfaces connect to a warehouse management system (WMS) via a wireless local area network. Some more sophisticated WMS can indicate not only the location from which to pick, replenish and put-away, but also the optimal sequence of these events.

At the 900,000 square foot distribution center for City Furniture, in Tamarac, Fla., all 35 forklifts are equipped with fixed-mount rugged computers with flat panel LCD displays. Our forklift operators perform at maximum efficiency, because they always have real-time access to the information they need,according to Chad Simpson, City Furniture's Technical Support supervisor. An optimized step-by-step routing scheme is displayed on their screens to guide them to their destination.

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