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Warehouse Magement System

The Key Factors to Consider Before Implementing Robots in Your Warehouse

The Key Factors to Consider Before Implementing Robots in Your Warehouse

Warehouse robots are increasingly essential in retail, distribution, and manufacturing environments. For years now, robots have been used for single, discreet warehouse tasks. Today, however, robots are being implemented for more and more complex warehouse operations. This increased demand is being driven by multiple factors, including accelerating e-commerce growth, pressure from consumers for faster turnaround on orders, and growing competition for labor.  

Could warehouse robots improve your operations and overall performance? Do you know which warehouse automation solutions are optimal for your business?

Here are the key factors to consider before adding robots to your warehouse:

Warehouse robots come in a variety of types, with different capabilities and features

When it comes to warehouse control systems, robots are just another form of automation. That means you are likely already familiar with some types of warehouse robots, while others may be completely new to you. It is important to understand how warehouse automation has evolved and the wide array of features and capabilities now available.

 Types of warehouse automation

  • Goods-to-person (GTP) solutions utilize an operator based in a centralized location, and the goods move to the operator, rather than the operator moving to the goods. The term “goods-to-person” applies whether the goods are moved by an autonomous robot or some other form of warehouse automation such as a vertical or horizontal carousel or a vertical lift module (VLM). With a true goods-to-person solution, the product picked is a single item or handful of items from a larger inventory stored within that automated media.
  • Shuttle systems deliver product without using an operator. For example, a shuttle system or a rail crane can pick up full pallets of product from a high-density pallet storage solution. The product is retrieved and then staged or conveyed through a conveyor system for delivery to the next part of the process such as pick-to-light or a put-wall that is downstream of the storage solution.

Both GTP and shuttle systems can involve machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities. This technology now ranges from simple software and autonomous functionality to much more advanced systems with complex sensors and sophisticated predictive analytics.

For example, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are gaining traction across a range of distribution environments. Simple AMRs can be programmed and implemented quickly, without a lot of overhead, to accomplish repetitive tasks, such as moving product from one location to another.

Articulating pick robots are also becoming more popular. These robots have the intelligence to discern among mixed products in a single bin, cart, or tote. An articulating pick robot is smart enough to recognize a wanted item, find it, and then move its arm to pick the item. Some can even distinguish damaged items and reject them. When equipped with machine learning, these robots learn about the product base and how best to fulfill orders, and they improve over time.  

Understanding the scope of features and capabilities currently available can help you find the warehouse automation solution that will be most useful in your warehouse.

Determining the “why” is critical

 It is crucial to identify the specific role robots will play in improving the operation of your facility. Generally speaking, the top reasons companies opt for warehouse automation are to:

  • Optimize the footprint of a warehouse facility. Storing and moving items more efficiently makes the most of existing space.
  • Improve pick rates without additional labor. The right solution enhances the performance of the current workforce.
  • Improve the customer experience. Increasing pick rate and accuracy means customers get their orders fulfilled faster and without error.
  • Modernize and automate. Eventually, legacy warehouse systems need to be replaced, especially when maintenance and repair budgets become excessive.

Calculating the ROI of warehouse robots

While evaluating options, be sure to calculate the return on investment (ROI) of different warehouse automation types. First, identify warehouse operations that involve demonstrable, repetitive tasks and determine the hard costs associated them. Then, compare that to the cost of buying or leasing a robot that could assume those responsibilities.

For instance, simple time-and-motion studies of warehouse associates have found 60% of their time is spent walking. Buying or leasing AMRs or other type of warehouse robot can dramatically reduce or eliminate that walking time and result in significant labor cost savings. Warehouse robots can also help businesses adjust to peak season surges and dips.

Robots must be integrated with warehouse processes

To be effective, warehouse robots must be integrated with other warehouse processes. Remember: Warehouse automation is not meant to function as standalone technology. Instead, it needs to be connected to other automation and warehouse processes.

Working with an experienced warehouse automation provider will help you avoid creating islands of robot technology. That’s why it is so important to look for a warehouse robot vendor that can combine warehouse management (WMS), warehouse execution (WES), and warehouse control systems (WCS) into a single package.

 The goal is to improve warehouse productivity using technologies that can blend with your current warehouse operations. Ultimately, that solution could involve AMRs, an automated storage conveyance system, pick by light, or another type of warehouse robot. The right vendor will deliver a complete solution that seamlessly integrates today’s automation technology to optimize results.

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Warehouse Magement System

What Is The Best Way To Select A Warehouse Management System?

What is the best way to select a Warehouse Management System (WMS)?

When selecting a Warehouse Management System (WMS), the two most important questions to ask are:

  1.  What do you need the WMS to accomplish—i.e., what is the business problem you are trying to solve? and,
  2.  What will be your return on investment (ROI)? When calculating the ROI, be sure to consider labor costs, including what you are spending now compared to what you could save with a WMS.

In addition, remember to factor in accuracy—How much is inaccuracy costing you now?—as well as throughput—Could your warehouse be getting more done? Problems with accuracy and throughput contribute to customer satisfaction. If customers are complaining because their orders are incomplete or not arriving fast enough, you risk losing them to your competition.

Think of that as a “silent expense,” one that cannot be seen, but is proven by the fact that your sales aren’t growing as fast as those of your competitors. When you are noticing issues like these, it is time to invest in getting your warehouse implemented on a software platform.

It is also critical to evaluate the experience of the Warehouse Management System (WMS) implementation team. The more experienced the team, the better. Look for vendors who have solved challenges like yours and worked in similar environments. You need to be able to communicate openly and honestly with them and they should be engineers who can design a WMS that is unique to the needs of your warehouse. Each warehouse is different. You need a Warehouse Management System (WMS) that is customized to your processes and the product that you’re selling.

Lastly, it is important to look for software that is pliable. You need a solution that can address the issues in your warehouse today and evolve with you as your business grows. Find a vendor that you trust, respect, and can consider a true business partner for the long term.

Do all Warehouse Management Systems solutions have a Warehouse Control System component?

No, all WMS solutions do not include a Warehouse Control System (WCS) component. In fact, very few do. Even if you don’t have automation today but plan on growing and adding automated storage and retrieval systems at some point, it is essential that the WCS you chose will be able to seamlessly integrate with a WCS. Adding bolt-on WCS modules each time you add an automated feature can quickly lead to incompatibility issues. It is much more effective to plan ahead with a WMS that can grow with you and integrate WCS and WES as needed. That means you want a WMS that is feature rich. It needs to be able to grow with your business and easily adapt as you add technologies and capabilities—at the station level, item level, zone level, and for the warehouse as a whole.

What are the goals of a Warehouse Management System implementation?

The goals of a WMS implementation should be enhanced productivity and accuracy, along with the capabilities to adapt to your growing business and introduce automation to lower costs. With the right WMS vendor, your WMS can be customized as needed, ensuring that you continue to optimize performance throughout all warehouse operations.

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Warehouse Magement System

What Is The Difference Between WMS, WCS, And WES?

What Is the Difference Between Warehouse Management System (WMS). Warehouse Control System (WCS), and Warehouse Execution System (WES)

A true Warehouse Management System (WMS), when it’s not a bolt-on module, is the foundation for inventory management within a warehouse. It controls all inventory operations, including tracking, expiration date tracking, and numerous other details that an ERP would be hard pressed to keep track of with large scale inventories of 100,000—200,000 items.

A warehouse control system (WCS) is a software package that not only manages some forms of WMS functionality, but also controls automation equipment within that same environment. In other words, a WCS controls, directs, and manages vertical carousels, vertical lift modules (VLMs), horizontal carousels, conveyor systems, sortation systems, autonomous guided vehicles (AGV), automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), goods to person (G2P), pick by light, put by light (i.e., put wall), hands free picking, robotic picking, and more.

A WCS interfacing with all these different technologies can sound quite complicated, but the level of complexity depends on the type of automation equipment under control and the capabilities the WCS. In fact, for most horizontal carousels, vertical carousels, and vertical lift modules (VLM), the WCS can be relatively straightforward. Other technological solutions, such as those involving robots, AGVs, and MDR conveyor systems, typically introduce more complexity.

A warehouse execution system (WES) is analogous to a task manager; it will execute on a specific task, but it can do tasks from the WMS and it can do tasks from the WCS. Some call it a “WMS lite.” A WES has some, but not have all, of the capabilities of a WMS.

Our WCS software capabilities interface directly with the underlying PLC-based controls so an extra OEM software system or integration point to communicate to automation PLCs is not required. This eliminates an entire layer of software complexity across a warehouse operation. A WCS can be considered the brains or the intelligence of the automation as opposed to the direct control of equipment. The underlying PLC machine controls execute the decisions dictated by the WCS or WES.

What type of operator training is required for WMS with WCS?

Operators do not need training on the software programs for the automation included in the WCS. From the user perspective, all WCS functioning happens in the background. Maintenance personnel will need to know how to service and maintain the different automated systems, but warehouse operators will only see the end result—e.g., that the carousel has spun and that the light bar is indicating the product that needs to be picked.

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Warehouse Magement System

How Does A Warehouse Management System Support Automated Storage Solutions?

How Does A Warehouse Management System Support Automated Storage Solutions?

Today’s software-based warehouse management system, WMSs often include warehouse control systems (WCSs) that are able to integrate with automated storage options such as conveyors, vertical carousels, or VLMs.

As a result, products stored in carousels can be delivered to pickers, who simply scan barcodes to record the warehouse picking process. That data then goes directly to the ERP. On their own, ERPs cannot integrate with or automate the hardware. WMS can also integrate with a WCS to support voice picking, pick to light, and print and apply.

How does a WMS support shipping?

The WMS communicates with both the ERP and the shipping module that is post-pick. This is a simple integration offering improved accuracy, efficiency, and convenience. Essentially, every time that a product is shipped to a customer, the tracking number goes into the transactions that go to the ERP. Then, the ERP can invoice the customer including the tracking number.

When is it time to consider moving from a paper-based system to a WMS?

Warehouse managers should consider moving from a paper-based system to a WMS as soon as they detect issues with shipping speed and accuracy. If throughput is not keeping up with demand, a WMS can help. Typically, problems with speed and accuracy are reflected in higher labor costs. For example, if a warehouse is experiencing a lot of overtime, the reasons could be related to issues with speed and accuracy. A WMS can improve processes so operators can work more efficiently. Finally, a WMS can help warehouse managers optimize storage density and maximize warehouse space.

What type of reporting is best for a warehouse?

Relying on ERP for reporting can be problematic because the ERP is not on the operations floor and does not function in real-time. That means there is always going to be lag time between what is really happening on the warehouse floor and what is being reported that is happening. By contrast, a WMS operates in real-time at the warehouse and presents a truly accurate account of inventory. If a warehouse manager needs real-time reporting on their operation, they need a software based WMS.

How does an advanced WMS platform generate reports?

A WMS can report on virtually all warehouse operations, ranging from receiving, inventory, and order picking to shipping and consolidation. Reports can also be more specific, such as put aways that have been entered into the system that haven’t been completed, replenishments that haven’t been fulfilled, etc. With a software based WMS, all of these reports can be generated in real-time. ERP systems cannot provide reports like these because ERPs lack real-time information and the ability to customize reports.

Why is a WMS better at handling an emergency situation such as an expedited order?

When a customer needs an order “right away,” a WMS can immediately make the appropriate adjustments to inventory and picking schedules. This is called hot picking. It is much more difficult to fulfill expedited orders and maintain accurate inventory records with a paper-based system. A WMS can also easily handle cross dock, returns, and other complex warehouse operations that are too complex for paper-based or ERP systems.

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Warehouse Magement System

Can Manual Warehouse Operations Be ERP Based?

Can manual warehouse operations be ERP-based? If so, what problems can arise?

Yes, manual warehouse operations can be ERP based; however, a variety of different problems can arise in these situations, particularly in large warehouse environments. For instance, when the lead or the manager uses printed paperwork to determine picking schedules, it can be difficult to keep all of the data straight and pages may get lost or misplaced along the way. Overstocks can also be problematic.

When a receiver cannot fit all of a product in one location, they need to find another place to store the remainder. If the location information or the quantity that was put in each location is wrong, or written down incorrectly or illegibly, then problems can arise. Since ERP does not offer real-time transaction data, any changes to what is in storage—either because of overstocks or picking—are not accounted for in real-time.

How does ERP handle batch picking, zone picking, and wave picking?

ERPs can have difficulty handling complex picking processes. For example, when there are waves, the first bundle of orders is generally picked and distributed first, before the second wave comes. However, in an ERP-based system, the information is not recorded in real-time. In many cases there is an operator sitting at a desk recording data on every order. That means there are two people—the picker and the person entering the data—involved with each order, and the warehouse manager may not be sure who, if either, is correct. If the picker is supposed to pick 10, but mistakenly only picked nine, but the paperwork says 10, the data entry person enters it as 10. The inventory won’t reconcile, and the customer is shorted. On the other hand, if the picker mistakenly picks 11 instead of 10, the warehouse loses money.

What is slotting and how is it associated with picking speed?

Slotting is the practical application of a statistical analysis for the SKU/product base in a warehouse distribution center or manufacturing facility. It consists of reviewing and analyzing the velocity or movement of items and associated cubic storage movement of those items relative to the other items. The goal is to determine optimal locations to store items and also make decisions about optimized automation systems to store and manage those items. Primarily, slotting improves labor, travel time and automation efficiency. The secondary by-product improvement is space utilization. A slotting analysis can help determine if a business is out of space or consuming too much space. If a business slots correctly and automates correctly, the footprint can often be significantly reduced.

A slotting analysis is based on the cubic dimensions of items, as well as their current and projected velocity. Velocity equates to the requisite travel time for an operator to pick the item over a given period of time. That means that the velocity of an item picked 1,000 times a month is much higher than the velocity of an item picked once a month. Velocity directly correlates to operator labor and travel time either in a non-automated environment or in an automated environment. It could be the wait or dwell time of the automation equipment for that particular item. Conducting a slotting analysis and making decisions about how to optimally slot items in the facility improves productivity substantially. Slotting analysis helps determine what type of automation equipment to use and generates the underlying ROI for re-slotting and/or automating the storage of any given set of SKUs or products.

The average warehouse associate spends 60% of their time traveling. In a warehouse that is properly slotted, travel time can be significantly reduced and that, in turn, lowers labor costs. Slotting can also increase the efficiency of automated storage equipment. In fact, all the dynamics of a warehouse can benefit from a slotting analysis since it improves average warehouse throughput, productivity by piece of equipment, productivity by picker, order turn-around time, and overall throughput to meet peak demands.

What is the difference between manual warehouse operations with an ERP and using an ERP with a WMS?

With a software-based WMS, operators use hand-held devices to do the inventory management and accounting. As soon as the operator hits “enter” on the device, that transaction is created and on the next iteration of communication with the ERP, the data is sent. This combination of WMS and ERP offers real-time inventory management, informing warehouse managers about exactly what happened and when. It’s much more efficient, faster, and more accurate than paper-based systems.

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Warehouse Magement System

When Do You Need A Warehouse Management System?

When Do You Need A Warehouse Management System (WMS)?

Warehouses are complex storage and distribution environments and ideally, a warehouse management system (WMS) should be in place as soon as warehouse operations start. That is rarely the case, however. Most warehouse managers begin looking for WMS when they start having problems with productivity, inventory control, and rising labor costs.

What are the downsides of a paper-based warehouse management system (WMS)?

Although warehouse operations such as receiving, put away, and picking may seem simple enough to track manually with spreadsheets at first, there are numerous downsides to using a paper-based WMS. For example, a paper-based WMS lacks accountability—it offers little to no verification that an operator has received inventory and put it away in the correct location. That leads to inaccuracies and inefficiencies. In addition, with a paper-based system, receivers and pickers working in the warehouse must stop whatever else they are doing (operating machinery, moving inventory, etc.) in order to manually update the WMS. Again, this often creates inaccuracies and inefficiencies—which ultimately lead to higher labor costs.

What are the benefits of a software-based WMS?

The biggest benefit of a software-based WMS is that it can track inventory automatically and in real-time. That means operators can work efficiently; they do not have to continually record inventory movement manually on paper spreadsheets. In addition, with a software-based WMS, inventory is accounted for accurately and effectively in real time.

What are the basic operations of a warehouse?

The basic operations of a warehouse include receiving, put away, picking, cycle counting, inventory reconciliation, storage, and shipping.

Receiving is the task of bringing items from a vendor into the warehouse for storage and ultimately, shipping. If receiving happens using a manual process, the receiver must handle the product or pallet, look through static racking to see where it will fit, and then physically place the product or pallet there. With a manual receiving process, there is little accountability about where or when the inventory is stored, and that can lead to problems with the accuracy of warehouse management.

During “put away,” the warehouse receiver verifies that all the inventory from a particular PO or vendor is stored appropriately. Again, if done manually, this process can be challenging. The receiver has to double check the stock number, description, and quantity of what was expected to arrive and record where it was stored—all by hand. Likewise, any discrepancies must be resolved by hand.

Picking is the task of selecting product to fulfill an order.

Cycle counting is a period of respite when warehouse operators compare what is currently in inventory with what is expected to be in inventory. In many warehouses, there is an inventory control department whose sole job is to ensure that the inventory in the warehouse is accurate. Usually, the more frequently warehouse operators cycle count, the more accurate the inventory is. Manual warehouse management usually yield cycle counts around 80 – 90 % accurate. With WMS, cycle counts can be as high as 99.8% accurate.

Inventory reconciliation involves comparing the inventory recorded in a WMS with an actual physical count of inventory on hand. It usually happens once a year. Maintaining a robust cycle count program in combination with an ERP that gives an accurate accounting helps warehouse managers know their true inventory at any given time. Generally, a cycle count program is scheduled once per month. Then, once per quarter, operators can extract out the inventory that is in the building and send that data to the ERP by item and quantity.

Shipping involves the distribution of picked products. When a WMS is used, it can communicate with both the ERP and the shipping module that is post pick. This is a simple integration, and every time product is shipped to a customer, the tracking number goes into the transactions that then go up to the ERP. Then, the ERP can create the customer invoice complete with the tracking number.

What kinds of problems can arise if warehouse receiving is handled manually?

When receiving is handled manually, warehouse operations are not as accurate or fast as they could be. For example, with a manual process, the receiver must record all of the inventory that comes into the warehouse. If the receiver is distracted or otherwise occupied, they may not get to this paperwork step until long after the product or pallet has been stored—and sometimes, their recollection of stock numbers, descriptions, quantities, and location can be inaccurate. These types of inaccuracies lead to inefficiencies and delays in picking and other warehouse operations.