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.

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.

To achieve maintenance simplicity, information about the status of each control card section is sent to the central control software via Ethernet computer networking technology. If a control card goes bad, the operator or maintenance staff can pinpoint exactly which card is bad on a computer screen and make an immediate replacement. Downtime is minimized and guesswork is eliminated. Only those parts that absolutely need to be replaced are replaced. All of this helps to lower the cost of maintaining the conveyor.

Now apply that same principle across a fully automated warehouse or distribution center—the gains realized in efficiencies and productivity are staggering.

Making sense of simplicity

There’s more to reaching a state of operational simplicity than replacing workers with one-off automated solutions. You need a strategy in place that guides those purchases while ensuring you’re making your operations and maintenance more intuitive and easy to manage—not less. Getting there requires a long-term vision and a lot of heavy thinking upfront from experts who take the time to really understand your operation. But the payoff is worth the effort. After all, you don’t see too many people clamoring to trade their iPads for a No. 2 pencil.

Companies in this article