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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

June 10, 2015

Logistics News: Flexibility Is Key To Managing Volatility in The DC

Deploying Appropriate Technologies can Improve Performance

Holste Says:

Greater volatility requires a strong and rapid response capability along with greater operational and staffing flexibility.
What Do You Say?

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Previous Columns by Cliff Holste

Sorting It Out: Business Metrics Drive Technology Adoption

Sorting It Out: Supervising in the DC - Timeless Leadership Skills and Tools First-Line Supervisors Need to be Successful

Sorting It Out: Good Business Security is All About Paying Attention to Details

Sorting It Out: Is Automation Right for Your Business

Sorting It Out: Moving Data & Products Fast is Key to Attracting New Consumers


As a result of e-commerce, multi-channel marketing and on-going sales promotions, distributors are facing sudden increases and decreases in volume which directly impacts on order fulfillment efficiency and productivity. Greater volatility requires a strong and rapid response capability along with greater operational and staffing flexibility. When demand drops, picking and shipping should be able to throttled back a little, but then be ready to quickly ramp-up again as needed.

To better manage these fluctuations, picking systems should be structured so that picking zones can be staffed with one or multiple operators and pick-zone boundaries expanded or contracted to optimize picking efficiency. Picking systems that utilize RF devices, pick-to-light and/or voice directed technology can easily accommodate flexible zone boundaries and quickly increase or decrease the number of operators in a zone.

Another important system management capability is having the ability to slowdown and/or speedup conveyors and sorters. With a Warehouse Control System (WCS), during periods of slow to moderate volume, equipment speeds can be slowed down, thus reducing maintenance and energy consumption. If operations are expected to be interrupted for an extended period, the system can be paused without losing current processing data, then reactivate when operations resumes. During peak periods the system runs at full capacity.

To further enhance flexibility and performance, multiple data collection technologies are available that enable pickers to pick orders and collect data while using a single durable PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) data capture device and cellular phone - referred to as “multi-modal”. As an example, let’s say that you are using voice directed picking and you have to record a lot number for tracking purposes. Voice will direct the picker to the SKU location where the picker will scan the lot number, because that’s more accurate and faster than speaking a lengthy number. Stock outage and location errors can be immediately reported and quickly corrected. With multi-modal, these technologies are on one device and system, thereby eliminating the need to manually switch back and forth between applications.

All of the above system technologies plus lots more can now be managed efficiently within a Warehouse Control System (WCS). This is a software execution program offered by most System Integrators that resides between the lower level PLC machine control and the host CPU (ERP and/or WMS).

Final Thoughts

With a combination WMS/WCS, companies can put more management intelligence into their picking and shipping operation thereby, providing more flexibility and higher system performance.

Recent Feedback

Nice write-up, Cliff. Enabling pickers to pick orders and collect data while using a PDA data capture device can streamline services to say the least. I'm impressed with the collaboration tools that are becoming available for companies. Thanks for sharing!

Chris Maldini
Jun, 12 2015