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About the Author

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

August 28, 2013



Managing Complex DC Systems

Getting It Right the First Time is Key to a Successful System Operation


Holste Says:

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Most industry experts agree that before a company considers adopting technically complex systems it should examine its core operational areas such as, receiving, put-away, picking, value-added services, order consolidation and shipping to determine how they can be simplified and streamlined.
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Previous Columns by Cliff Holste

Sorting It Out: A Different Way of Looking at DC Automation

Sorting It Out: Understanding Future Job Creation Issues – More Questions than Answers

Sorting It Out: Achieving Sortation System Success

Sorting It Out: Optimizing System Performance

Sorting It Out: Shippers Looking For Small Footprint, High Density Storage & Picking Solutions

More


Materials handling processes and operations in the DC are inherently complex and are becoming more so all the time. Automated systems are generally considered to be more complex than semi-automated or manual operations. For many companies the competitive benefits derived from automation outweigh the technology challenges associated with managing them. For others, the operational complexity factors are a major deterrent.

In either case, most industry experts agree that before a company considers adopting technically complex systems it should examine its core operational areas such as, receiving, put-away, picking, value-added services, order consolidation and shipping to determine how they can be simplified and streamlined. In addition, look for functional improvements in slotting, order batching, pick path routing, and work flow simplification. Once this is completed, what remains should be stable and consistent enough to automate without excessive complexity and overstated justification. This approach, referred to as incremental implementation, allows for a somewhat easier transition to automation.

However, when automating specific processes like picking or shipping, it should be noted that this may not necessarily increase overall system productivity or throughput. In fact, standalone automation may yield just the opposite effect. How does that happen?


   
 
  • excessive equipment controls and/or software complexity,
  • inadequate operator training,
  • ill-advised experimentation with new methods and/or technologies,
  • subjective decision making based on assumptions,
  • improper or overstated justification,
  • and, operational inflexibility are a few of the issues that come to mind.


Simply deploying automating in the DC as a tool for productivity is not enough. This tool must be properly integrated. Operators must be instructed on its proper use. They must be taught to have faith in its ability - not to fear or suspect it. It must be properly managed and continuously maintained.

Improving the efficiency and capacity of a specific process may be only marginally beneficial. This is especially true if upstream and/or downstream processes are not capable of supporting higher performance levels.

Also, it is highly recommended that companies who are considering deploying newly developed technology, have a well thought out backup plan, or temporary work around that will keep operations running while faults are being corrected. This is especially true if an experimental or prototype piece of automation is deployed in the mainline system.

 

Simulation & Emulation Software Helps Lower Automation Complexity and Risk

It would be great to have a crystal ball that could show how a proposed system solution would operate under various conditions. If you don’t have one – consider working with a contractor that offers computer simulation modeling.

Today’s computer simulation graphics are impressive as many of the visual and functional modeling properties in the last few years have come from leveraging advances in computer gaming technology. As a result there has been dramatic improvement in the realistic behavior of material handling elements within the model. According to Matt Hobson-Rohrer, a Demo3D representative (www.demo3d.com), a simulation model can be quickly developed from AutoCAD layouts for most DC systems making it integral and affordable to the planning and system design process.

It is important to understand that the more complex a systems is the more operationally disruptive it will be to reconfigure once installed. Simulation and emulation tools make it easier for system planners to test and experiment before committing to the final design.

If your business is in anyway fashion orientated, then you know that year-to-year changes in products, customer order profiles, and value added services are normal and to be expected. In addition, many DCs have at least one or two huge peak seasons per year when they may require a large pool of temporary labor. Emulation tools allow the user to see what affect these changes will have on system performance and what management and/or operational adjustments are most beneficial.

Advanced modeling technology, provides:


 
  • accurate and realistic behavioral characteristics,
  • reduced modeling time,
  • reduced cost,
  • and, ease of “what if” experimentation.

Modeling is a critically important tool in understanding and managing systems complexity and risk. It simply makes more sense to prove the system design in “virtual space” instead of in the DC after the equipment has been bolted to the floor.


Final Thoughts

No doubt DC material handling operations are complex. Modeling tools are available that make it practical for system planners and designers to test system designs and alternatives to insure that they “get it right the first time”.

Buyers of materials handling systems, especially those that are considering automation, need to consider how different vendors are going to utilize simulation and emulation for “proving” their proposals.

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