Increasing Efficiency of Warehouse Operations

Rugged PCs offer wireless solutions to warehouse inefficiencies


The WMS is typically interfaced with an existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) system or accounting package. This provides an integrated method of automatically tracking inventory, processing orders, and handling returns. WMS is frequently implemented with automatic data collection using barcode scanners and the increasingly common radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, now mandated by Wal-Mart and other retailers.

The implementation of a WMS along with automated data collection will likely give you increases in accuracy, reduction in labor costs and a greater ability to service the customer by reducing cycle times, according to Dave Piasecki of Inventory Operations Consulting LLC, author of Inventory Accuracy: People, Processes, & Technology (2003). For some warehouse and distribution center operations, the more efficient processes and better utilization of storage space will also result in inventory reduction and increased storage capacity.

Time Saving

These benefits directly address the elimination of wastes at the core of Lean Manufacturing philosophy. Equipping forklifts with computers integrated with a warehouse management system immediately reduces the waste involved in transportation, human motion and waiting.

Shorter, more direct routing reduces travel time and, therefore, the demand for forklifts and the associated labor, capitol, maintenance and energy costs. Travel time is reduced because operators always know their precise destination. After a put-away, a warehouse management system can direct a forklift to do a pick at the closest available location in situations where like items may be stored in several different areas.

By giving operators better information about the location of items, human motion is also reduced: Operators no longer need to continually get on and off the forklift to check three or four labels before finding the location of the intended item.

The Japanese industrial engineer, Shigeo Shingo, famously explained that a bolt with 15 threads on it cannot be tightened until the last turn, and therefore the other 14 turns are wasted. This observation led to the development of fasteners, tools and methods designed for one turn, one-motion installation.

Similarly, the forklift operator provides a necessary function only when he or she picks the correct item. Any searching activity leading up to the locating and retrieval of that item represents a waste of time and resources waste that should be eliminated. Thom Raddatz, the Warehousing Manager at Seaquist Closures of Mukwonago, Wis., estimates that he would need 50 percent more forklifts if he did not equip them with an onboard computer tied to their SAP software system.

Better Response Time

More efficient warehouse operations also means better response times (less waiting) for dependent production processes and for customer fulfillment. According to Raddatz, Other departments at Seaquist Closures can request materials from a desktop PC, and that request immediately appears on the forklift operator's computer screen. When loading a truck for delivery to a customer, the forklift operator types in the PRO number (pick up record) and confirms that all items are loaded. Immediately, the billing process is initiated. If the customer calls a minute later, our customer service representatives can respond with up-to-date details about the shipment.

Nicholas Hanke, the MIS Systems administrator at Minnesota Corrugated Box Inc. of Albert Lea, Minn., says that automated forklift operations using computers to help improve customer relations. We have a number of customers that maintain inventory in our warehouse. By automating the record keeping of our forklift operations, our customers can use a Web interface to instantly check their own inventory levels.

Shorter lead time not only provides better service, but it can also result in a reduction of inventory and floor space requirements.

Reduction of Defects

Shingo, the Japanese industrial engineer, is also known for his concept of mistake-proofing, or poka yoke, that he developed as part of the Toyota Production System. One example of such a behavior-shaping constraint is the shaping of the top-right corner of 3.5 inch floppy computer disks to ensure that the disk cannot be inadvertently inserted upside-down. Another poka yoke is the inability to remove a car key if the automatic transmission is not first put in the "Park" position, thereby preventing an unsafe parking condition.

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