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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

July 23, 2014

Real-Time Control Speeds Customer Orders Through The DC

Managing DC processes in Real-Time provides greater Operational Flexibility

Holste Says:

With real-time performance displays, managers can see whether they are hitting the numbers incrementally throughout the day, and if not, what areas are falling behind.
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Previous Columns by Cliff Holste

Sorting It Out: Shippers Looking To Increase System Capacity Are Surprised To Find It May Already Exist!

Sorting It Out: For Shippers - Benefits Of Real-Time Control In The DC Are Huge!

Sorting It Out: Shippers Looking to Improve Operations Choose Customer Centric Approach

Sorting It Out: Productivity is a Crucial Factor in Measuring Production Performance

Sorting It Out: Packaging Construction Impacts on Logistics Operations


Going back a few years, DC mangers had to wait until the end of the day to find out if they hit their target numbers – too late to do anything about it. Now, with real-time performance displays, managers can see whether they are hitting the numbers incrementally throughout the day, and if not, what areas are falling behind. This then allows management to adjust operations by using the real-time information to balance demand for products with the resources and workload in the facility to quickly get back on track.

The primary functions of the DC have always been receiving, putaway, picking, packing, and shipping. That’s not going to change. However, for many logistics companies real-time order processing is impacting the way those functions are executed. The following are a few examples:


System control software monitors the flow of product thru the DC handling system controlling when and how cases are released from accumulation lanes to the sorter. Any interruption in flow is reported immediately. The software is also monitoring the sortation lanes to determine where to send product, e.g., may need to go to the product sequencer if building store ready pallet loads.

A worker performs a put-away or stock move using a mobile handheld computer. The worker scans the bar-code label on the product and the system recommends the optimal put-away location. The worker can select that location, or override it and place it in another location. The worker scans the bar-code of the destination location to ensure that the item is placed in the correct location. The WMS is immediately updated as to the status of the goods in real-time, and even knows when goods are in-transit, being moved from one location to another.

The real-time control system senses heavy throughput at a particular shipping lane, the control system can call for additional operators (equipped with voice units or RF terminals) to that lane to head off congestion and delays. Or, in a multi-line palletizing system, if a palletizing machine goes down, the control system can automatically direct product to another palletizing line.

The WMS allocates inventory and organizes picking waves at the beginning of the shift based on the orders that have been received into the system. But then, sometime well into the pick cycle, an order becomes a higher priority than was originally planned, or a new order that must be shipped today shows up. Sound familiar? No problem – with real-time order processing, the system can internally re-shuffle the remaining orders to accommodate the new or expedited order without interrupting other operations.

In DCs where the number of active products exceeds the number of available picking slots, real-time information can be used to manage a dynamic pick face strategy. In this example selected products are stored in a mini-load storage system to maximize cube storage space then delivered as needed to an open pick location. In this way, one picking location may be used for several products on an as needed basis.

In addition to improved warehouse slotting and inventory accuracy, real-time control makes it possible to quickly react to order processing and/or unexpected operational changes.

Managing Labor in Real-Time with a Warehouse Control System (WCS)

Assuming workers have been cross-trained, real-time information can be used to optimize the workforce in the DC. For instance when plans change, as they often do, the WCS can suggest a plan for reallocating the available labor based on the new demand. If volume in receiving is low, management will alerted so that labor can be quickly reassigned to another area where volume is high.

In this way labor management systems (LMS) and WCS work in tandem with voice and/or RF technologies to reallocate labor and tasks throughout the DC. With the WCS technologies now available, managers get a workflow dashboard (similar to that shown above) that provides a visual representation of everything going on in the DC in real-time and by using the various dropdown menus, can easily make changes.


Real-time Control Extends Beyond the DC

Using point-of-sale (POS) technology, retail managers can see that they are about sold out of a specific SKU in one store, while there is a surplus in another store. Now instead of getting on the phone to manually arrange a stock transfer the transaction can be done quickly on-line.

For many retailers having access to up-to-the minute information about on-hand inventory and customers’ order shipping status is critical to managing their business. For example: did the cartons of snow shovels destined for Minnesota already ship, or can they be redirected to New York. In order to answer this type of inquiry the logistics provider must have real-time visibility into inventory, order fulfillment, shipping, and even billing.

According to HighJump, the best way to do that is through a Web-portal solution. A secure Web portal provides the basis for real-time information sharing and improved inventory visibility. This IT solution enables collaboration throughout the supply chain, giving customers the most accurate and timely view into the status of their orders. Customer can make knowledgeable decisions based on changing demand. So when the radar shows that the snowstorm has shifted to the northeast, they can access up-to-the-minute information to know whether they can re-direct those snow shovels to where the highest demand will be.

Likewise, with visibility into the contents of containers coming into port along with real-time inventory levels in DCs and stores, retailers can postpone the allocations of inventory on a cargo ship until it arrives at the DC receiving dock, then crossdock it to the store based on demand.

Final Thoughts

Increasingly, retailers are operating in a demand-driven quick response world. Upgrading to real-time visibility mode should be high on the priority list for every logistics company that wants/needs hands-on control of operations.

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