Material Handling Automation: Keeping the Pieces Working in Concert

Nearly 75 percent of managers rank distribution center automation as the No. 1 way to increase productivity and profitability

Randy Marble
Randy Marble

Ask any supply chain executives what changes impacted their operations the most during the past 10 to 15 years, and you can bet that, if material handling automation isn’t at the top of the list, it’s definitely in the top three—and for many good reasons.

Nearly 75 percent of managers rank distribution center (DC) automation as the No. 1 way to increase productivity and thereby increase profitability, according to a survey by Intermec Technologies. Customer demands to move more product through the supply chain faster (and through more channels), combined with a shrinking labor pool, also drove organizations to incorporate automated equipment and processes into their fulfillment centers and/or DCs.

Early on, it was usually rather piecemeal—add an automated conveyor here or a palletizing robot cell there. And even the end-to-end installations were more of a collection of individual contributors than a fully coordinated system. The end result is a patchwork quilt structure comparable to an orchestra without a conductor. Instead of hearing a lovely symphony, you just get a cacophony of random sounds. With nearly 3,000 hours lost each year to DC inefficiencies, according to Intermec, organizations can’t afford to have a single element out of rhythm.

Progressive organizations are engineering end-to-end automation solutions and creating a comprehensive system that has all the moving parts working in concert. Although fragmented attempts to automate may be great individual point solutions, what’s often missing is that layer above the individual components that coordinates all the pieces, communicates with the warehouse management system (WMS) software, provides high-level analysis of the operation and keeps the entire DC working in concert. This missing but crucial layer is commonly known as a warehouse control system (WCS).


Before we look at the contribution a WCS can make, it’s important to distinguish this type of software from a WMS. The key difference is that a WCS is about managing and improving automated material handling equipment, processes and systems, while a WMS is about controlling human interactions to fulfill or receive product.

In more practical terms, a WMS is great for scheduling personnel, providing a view of when product is expected to arrive or ship, organizing store and e-commerce orders, and similar tasks. But it can’t reach down into the equipment to physically move product where it needs to be. In other words, the WMS can suggest what needs to be done, but can’t affect how it gets done. It does not speak the language of automation.

Because a WCS is a layer that sits above individual equipment, it can easily make those adjustments, not just in one component of a warehouse system, but throughout. It can modify automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), conveyor speeds, sortation devices and more to create a level of efficiency that would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve by adjusting each part individually. As automation solutions progress, a WCS can also be used to write a new solution for a manual process, which saves the organization money while it improves efficiency. It brings a level of harmony to the physical operation that simply can’t be achieved any other way.

Starting from the End

A good conductor understands the importance of the finale. He coaxes and massages each note leading into it, building to a crescendo that creates a memorable and lasting impression.

It is the same in a fulfillment or distribution center. Everything there is based around the outbound schedule for vehicles. If you know that the vehicle on Dock 37 arrives at 10 a.m. and must leave by 11 a.m., everything that happens in the DC must be scheduled accordingly.

A WCS makes that goal easier to meet because it views all of the equipment in the warehouse or DC as a single unit rather than a collection of components. It can also optimize the gaps that inevitably occur between systems. Rather than seeing things slip through the cracks, as can easily happen when you’re trying to coordinate dozens of components individually, a WCS gives you a single, holistic view of all your equipment. You can then see how one adjustment impacts other parts of the system, and adjusts to ensure the product arrives at Dock 37 in time to load and ship.

Continuous Tweaking

Another advantage of an overview of the entire material handling system is the ability to easily see where adjustments, improvements and maintenance need to be performed.

Suppose an alert goes out, for example, or an alarm goes off because there is a jam on conveyor 9. The operator responds, clears it, and continues his or her work. Throughout the day, it happens six more times. At the end of the shift, you may find out there were seven conveyor jams if you happen to overhear the operator complaining about how tired he is from clearing them up. Short of checking the monitoring software for every individual piece of equipment at the end of every shift, however, you probably don’t realize there was a problem if the operator doesn’t alert you. Each of those jams steals valuable moments from your productivity that, in the long run, become a drain on productivity. Sixty percent of managers say that large cost and time savings can be realized by recovering just seconds from the various areas within a center, Intermec reports.

With a WCS, all of the workflow information is captured and rolled up into a single database of information, which can turn raw data into useful, forward-looking information for consistent quality and efficiency checks. The data capture also monitors for issues so they can be quickly resolved, which reduces downtime. As a result, you can make adjustments to reduce or eliminate those conveyor jams today, and use that information to plan for the future—delivering incremental improvements that ultimately add up to greater productivity.

Solving for Omni-Channel Distribution

The ability to provide targeted analysis is particularly valuable for organizations that are either practicing or planning to move into omni-channel distribution. The complexity of maintaining multiple distribution channels, particularly with some being store/pallet-oriented and others pulling pieces to ship directly to individuals, requires more hands-on analysis. A WCS allows you to set up several types of fulfillment channels within the same facility by making the logistics of moving product through the facility more flexible.

For example, a shoe manufacturer that is selling through its online store and retailers’ brick and mortar stores, as well as fulfilling online orders that come through its retail partners, can use an AS/RS to pull and place cartons on a conveyor system to go to a pack station. The operator at the pack station can look at the order information from the WMS, and determine whether the entire carton is being shipped or just one item from it. If it’s the full carton, the operator sends it on; if it’s just one item, that pair of shoes is pulled from the carton and put into a tote, and the rest are returned to inventory.

The WCS coordinates all of these operations and works with the WMS to ensure the manufacturer knows exactly how many full cartons are available, how many pair of shoes are in open cartons and where every item is located. This higher-level automation removes many of the complications involved with omni-channel distribution, helping organizations serve customers better while maximizing profitability.

Flexibility Is the Key

While a WCS brings a great many advantages to an organization, every DC and fulfillment center has different priorities. Because they are such dynamic environments, you want to be sure the WCS you choose has enough flexibility to evolve with the changing marketplace.

A WCS that takes a modular, layered approach works better in most organizations than one-size-fits-all software. With a modular WCS, you can start small and build out your capabilities as you need them, helping you keep costs down while allowing you to focus on the areas where you may see the best return on investment (ROI). Or you can introduce it all at once—whatever works best for your needs. Either way, you benefit because you never lack that missing layer that a well-designed WCS provides.

In most supply chain organizations, the most glaring need is for visibility into how the operation is working. Using our orchestra example, you may be able to hear the violins or the brass right now, but you’re not hearing the full symphony. A WCS allows you to view the operation end to end and gain a better understanding of how the components fit into the whole.

Once you gain this visibility, you can use it to plan workflow, which leads to optimizing work assignment information. The final step is to institute overall controls to ensure instructions are being properly executed and safety is being maintained. You know your business best, however, and with a modular, layered approach, you can address your most pressing needs and build out the rest in an intelligent, orderly fashion.

From Andante to Allegro

When it comes to moving goods through a fulfillment center or DC to their final destinations, you can only go as fast as the slowest point. And if you don’t know where that point is, it will be incredibly difficult to meet your ever-escalating performance metrics and deliver customer satisfaction.

Although investing in automated equipment is a step in the right direction, you never realize the full value of that investment if all that equipment runs independently. A WCS can help you orchestrate your entire material handling operation and keep all the components running in concert with each other. It’s your best bet to move your operation from running at a sluggish andante to a lively allegro.