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Cliff Holste is Supply Chain Digest's Material Handling Editor. With more than 30 years experience in designing and implementing material handling and order picking systems in distribution, Holste has worked with dozens of large and smaller companies to improve distribution performance.

Logistics News

By Cliff Holste

October 31, 2012

Four Proven Technologies That Will Improve DC Performance

Enhance DC Performance by First Extending the Capabilities of Your WMS

This is the time of year when many companies are putting together their operating budget for the coming year. No doubt 2013 will be every bit as challenging as the past few years have been. While most DCs are equipped with very little, if any, material handling automation, even the most antiquated have some version of a Warehouse Management System (WMS). In these companies order fulfillment is mostly a manual function performed by employees who are on foot or lift truck using a hand-held RF device connected to the WMS.

Going forward it makes perfect sense to enhance DC performance by adding hardware and software applications that extend the capabilities of your WMS. The following is a list of (4) sure-fire ways to do that:

Holste Says:

Taking full advantage of the powerful capabilities of the WMS will improve the company's ability to compete in an increasingly tough marketplace.
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1. Pick-to-Light & Voice Technologies:

Both of these technologies are supported by WMS software and increase picking productivity because they are “hands-free”. With pick-to-light, the order picker will be directed to the required pick location by flashing lights along the shelves that also display the number of units or cases that need to be picked. With voice picking, the order picker is directed by voice to the proper location and once there is told how many units or cases to pick.

As a general rule, lights are best in medium to high volume operations and more dense picking areas like case flow racks. Voice may be a better choice for high volume picking from pallet locations and/or slow moving SKUs that are spread out. For some DCs adopting a combination of both technologies (Multi-Modal as described next) will provide the best ROI.

The most common benefit of hands-free picking is higher picker productivity, i.e., the picker never has to put down (or holster) an RF device (scan gun) to either pick or open cartons. In a voice system, picking time can be reduced by the picker listening to the voice directive while traveling to the next location instead of stopping to read the RF device.

An RF scan device, however, does provide the ability to quickly and accurately capture detailed item information such as a production batch or serial numbers more quickly by scanning the items barcode label.

2. Multi-Modal Technologies:

In recent years multi-modal technologies have emerged as an answer to improving picker productivity with integrated wearable RF devices. While traditional RF devices are limited to one function, an integrated multi-modal solution allows a picker to seamlessly choose between voice, bar code scanning or manual input without having to switch from one software application to another. For more information on Multi-Modal applications - see (Wearable RF Devices Gaining Interest as Hands-Free Option; OHL Finds 10% Gain even over Voice)

3. Software Applications:

Task interleaving software minimizes the amount of travel between tasks by taking full advantage of serial opportunities rather than being functionally dedicated. However, not everyone uses this functionality because it requires a somewhat different way of working. For example – when a lift truck driver delivers a pallet load of product to picking for replenishment, the next task might be to pick up a stack of empty pallets that are needed in shipping. While in shipping, the next task may be to move a pallet load to the shipping dock or staging area. The idea is to make every move productive.

Most WMS have task interleaving software capability out of the box, or if not it can be easily added. However, to do task interleaving properly, you have to map out the routes at a detailed level and that does take time to complete. Therefore, many companies postpone implementation – and the labor savings. For more insight into this important functionality see – (WMS Thought Leaders Discussion – Warehouse Management and the Logistics Suite).

4. Slotting and Labor Management Strategies:

Proper determination of product pick face location is a dynamic and complex issue. Put simply, slotting is the strategy behind determining the best locations to store individual products to enable the most efficient picking. The top performing companies are constantly looking at where their products are stored and what is the best method for picking each SKU.

Slotting tools are available that calculate which items will be picked most frequently and should be in the most advantageous picking position to reduce the amount of travel a picker does to pick the order. In addition, the tool will make obvious recommendations like putting the heaviest items at chest height to avoid back injuries as well as more subtle recommendations to separate similar products/parts to avoid picking errors.

To make the most out of the slotting tool it should be integrated with a labor management system (LMS). A LMS program will calculate the cost of moving the material from one location to another, along with the potential labor savings from more efficient picking so that DC management can determine whether the savings outweighs the cost associated with moving the product. For more information on LMS - see (Diagnosing the Savings from Labor Management Systems).

Final Thoughts

The above picking and management strategies are sophisticated but not complex. They are available from a variety of material handling equipment and system providers. While individually they do not represent a total solution, standalone in the right application they each can improve system productivity, throughput and order accuracy. But perhaps more importantly, taking full advantage of the powerful capabilities of the WMS will improve the company’s ability to compete in an increasingly tough marketplace.

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