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The warehouse has long been a center of technological innovation. With so many tasks involving repetitive, manual labor, distribution-center operators have sought ways to speed up and streamline their processes. Today, though, the pace of warehouse automation is moving at a faster clip than ever before. In the following excerpts of conversations between SupplyChainBrain’s editors and experts on the topic of warehouse hardware and software, conducted at Modex 2016 in Atlanta, we explore some major developments in automation, including radio frequency identification, robotics, automated guided vehicles and more sophisticated warehouse control systems – all geared toward satisfying customer demands in the age of the omnichannel.
Q: What are the major issues that companies face today, as they struggle with their warehouse management system (WMS) software?
Bob Kennedy, Senior Vice President Business Development, DM Logic: It’s across the board. For instance, there are changing RF [radio frequency] messages. With a lot of WMS software, the RF message that is included is hard-coded. So everybody uses the same message. A lot of companies would like to personalize that, but it’s very difficult and expensive to do. They may have different types of workforces – some with more experience, others relying on temps. If you had the ability to change those RF messages, you could better address the challenges you have with a demographically different workforce.
Another dynamic area that comes to mind is packing. That’s particularly the case in an e-commerce and value-added services world, where customers are demanding more, and companies want to personalize the way they deliver shipments. Whether that involves inserts, promotional items or personalized packaging, this is a very dynamic area. A lot companies will address those needs outside of the system, manually. Which means they’re more prone to errors, and it takes more time.
Q: What is Industry 4.0?
Simon Drexler, Director of Material Transport, Clearpath: It’s the fourth industrial revolution. We believe that when we look back in 15 or 20 years’ time, it will have started in 2015. It’s the introduction of new automation technologies and interconnected devices inside of industrial centers, with the purpose of increasing operational efficiency. The excitement comes from the potential impact that it has on the market and on the industry itself. There are some estimates that Industry 4.0 will impact operational efficiency by up to 80 percent.
Mark Wheeler, Director of Supply Chain Industrial Solutions, Zebra Technologies: We see innovation across the board. At the task level, it’s what operators are working with to get information and confirm what they’re doing. At the facility level, it’s how they’re making facilities smarter and more visible, and extending that out to the broader supply chain. At the plant level, there’s a move to get everything connected and visible. A big part of that involves what we call smarter environments. Our CTO likes to differentiate between systems of reality that are constantly on, and systems of record. A WMS is very transactional – it’s a system of record for the warehouse. But a system of reality is saying, “Where exactly in real time are my people? Where are my assets? What is the status of a trailerload?” With a combination of video, depth sensors and software, we can not only monitor in real time the capacity available in that trailer, we can monitor the effectiveness of the load technique and the ergonomics of the loader. And we can mobilize that information, so that the dock manager has in the palm of his or her hand all the information needed to manage a very large loading operation. That’s just one example of real-time locationing, which is expanding significantly, with new technologies like Bluetooth low energy, integrating other technologies like passive and active RFID [radio frequency identification]. It’s about making the plant or warehouse continuously visible.
Jim Barnes, Chief Executive Officer, enVista: People want to move away from a batch-oriented environment. Many warehouse-management systems work with the concept of creating waves. And what’s a wave? It’s nothing more than a batch of orders, allocated based upon rules. For example, I might want to ship all my same-day orders differently from my next-day ground orders. I can set a rule that parses out the actual profile to say “same day versus next day.” The challenge is, what happens when all of a sudden an order drops in at one o’clock in the afternoon, and I need to dynamically reallocate? The batch is gone. A warehouse execution system [WES] moves the world from batch to dynamic. It’s the true brain behind what’s going on with your automation.
Q: What’s the significance of these advances in the age of the omnichannel?
Barnes: A lot of it is tied to value, because you’re moving to a more dynamic world. In the world of omnichannel, why is that so important? If you want to compete with Amazon or Uber from a logistics perspective, you have to move to same-day. If I’m batching up 25,000 orders before I can release them, versus dynamically allocating orders one at a time, I’m at a disadvantage. It’s all about compressing cycle time and creating a machine language that’s learning to move us from batch to dynamic.
Q: What are we seeing today in the use of RFID for specialized activities in the warehouse, such as returnable containers?
Tom O’Boyle, Director of RFID, Barcoding Inc.: We use RFID in various data-collection methods. For returnable containers in particular, one of the abilities we get with RFID is the ability to read lots of things all at once, without the need for any type of visual indications. We don’t need a line of sight in order to read a barcode, and a human doesn’t need to look through a pallet to be able to determine how many units are there. We can take a group of returnable containers, pass them through a read zone, and with that technology we’ll be able to read hundreds of tags at once – basically counting every single unit that’s on that pallet as it drives through. As an example, unique identifiers are issued to every single returnable transport unit that’s on that pallet. We can tell which units came in, where they came from, whom they were sent to, and be able to keep the inventory accurate with these technologies. In the past, we could not even count returnable containers very well. Because of the possibility of their being collapsed or nested, people would take a guesstimate of how many units came back. Now we can manage literally thousands of units all at once as they’re moving in and out of a facility, without any human interaction.
Q: What’s going on with the application of robots in the distribution center?
Al Dekin, Senior Vice President of Sales & Marketing, Locus Robotics: There’s a tremendous opportunity to leverage robots inside the four walls, to eliminate a lot of unproductive walking. It’s taking a conveyor concept and putting it on steroids. Conveyors are an older technology that provided the basis for a lot of transportation of goods through the warehouse. Robots are even simpler, and they provide a great deal of flexibility. The analogy I like to use is that conveyors are a lot like the subway system in Manhattan – very good at transporting 500 people from 42nd Street down to Battery Park. Robots, on the other hand, are more like Uber, with the ability to manage and deploy small, modular forms of transportation that can go anywhere at any time for any reason. That’s where you really start to unlock the value of robots.
Matt Wicks, Robotics Manager, Intelligrated: Robotics can help retailers in fulfillment operations to fill that labor gap. They have not traditionally been able to do a lot of the tasks that human operators can do. What we’re seeing now are advances in computer vision, computational power, materials and grasping ability. There’s also some technology, like collaborative robotics, that’s helping to address the cost challenges that come with the integration of a robotic solution. Collaborative robots are not necessarily the end-all and be-all solution, but certainly they serve the need to drive some of the cost down.
Q: How have recent economic trends driven advances in material-handling technology and automation?
Martin Boyd, Vice President of Counterbalance Solutions, Hyster-Yale Group: In 2008, the downturn of the economy forced a lot of companies to re-look at their businesses, and how they were spending their money and utilizing their resources. It put a lot of pressure, not only on customers and manufacturers, but on makers of industrial equipment as well. The industrial market went down about 50-60 percent; the construction market was down by close to 70 percent. There was an open door to technology to drive some of these trends. One had to do with wireless data communications, or what we refer to in the material-handling market as telematics or telemetry. It’s where you can communicate data from an asset or fleet of lift trucks to a central location.
Automation in the material-handling workplace has been around since the ‘50s. There were a lot of drivers that made automated guided vehicles, or AGVs, make sense in material handling. There’s no operator on an AGV, which means there’s no paycheck that you have pay. An AGV doesn’t call in sick. It doesn’t have holiday hours, or need health benefits. Those value drivers still exist today, but new technology has made lift trucks almost like an AGV without the navigation system. They’re becoming so technologically advanced that we can start partnering with companies that have navigation systems to aid them in their operation.
Eric Lamphier, Senior Director of Product Management, Manhattan Associates: We’ve seen our customers looking to embrace touchscreen technology across the enterprise, whether it’s for managers or execution personnel. It’s much more intuitive. With younger employees coming into the mix, intuitive graphical touchscreen devices are the right way to drive capability into the hands of personnel.
Q: What about trends in the nature and application of various types of warehouse software?
Lamphier: The fusion of WMS and WCS is certainly a popular topic. It’s about making sure we’ve got the right integration points and workflows worked out – so there’s a clear understanding of what the WMS is doing, and what the WCS should be driving from an end-customer perspective.
Q: Do you see a trend toward continued automation, leading to fewer bodies in the warehouse?
Lamphier: We do. It’s certainly our perspective, based on talking with customers, that more and more automation is happening. The variable cost of labor and the labor shortage is driving more customers to implement an increased level of automation.
Q: What’s the future of warehouse software and the vendors who offer it?
Kennedy: You will see the ERP [enterprise resource planning] vendors with their WMS systems remain a powerful force, with a big installed base. Some of the larger best-of-breed companies will continue to expand their platforms beyond WMS into planning and other execution systems. I think you’ll see better, stronger systems solutions for the mid-tier market. The systems of the future will be less like the big, monolithic WMS and have more of an app-based nature, where you can pick and choose apps, and build your own personal system. If you need a labor system, or a different kind of wave-management system, then you buy that. If you don’t need part of a traditional WMS, then you don’t have to buy it. Customers will be able to personalize the solution to meet their needs.
Richard J. Sherman, Senior Fellow, Supply Chain Centre of Excellence, Tata Consultancy Services: It’s about the convergence and maturity of these technologies. We heard about RFID during the “hype phase.” It takes time to mature and deploy that technology, and now it starts to get into the productivity stage, where people are actually using it. Remember the hype around [robotics technology vendor] Kiva Systems a couple of years ago? Amazon spent an extraordinary amount of money to buy Kiva. [Early users] were able to experience the potential as well as the limitations – moving those pods around was very difficult. But [some] saw the potential of an autonomous robot that could carry totes to the pickers. So now we’re getting a human-machine interface, where we’re leveraging machines to do what they do well, which is run around the warehouse, and the humans to do what they do well, which is picking eaches and putting them into the totes. We’re improving productivity by 30 and 40 percent, and the cost has come down greatly. Instead of a $100,000 unit, we’re seeing autonomous picking robots for $35,000 apiece.
Q: How do you see the warehouse of the future?
Sherman: It’s all about the continuous improvement of warehousing and material handling. Education is evolving as well; millennials are coming on board. They wouldn’t even think of not doing something on their smartphones, or not using omnichannel fulfillment. All of these things lead to the future being now.
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