The next big breakthrough in warehousing and distribution will not come from bots, drones or new hardware technologies.
Instead, a new class of software is driving unprecedented levels of warehouse optimization — enabling more flexibility, extending the life of existing assets and acting as a platform for piloting new technologies.
Distribution operations are ripe for innovation. And new robotic technologies are announced frequently for functions like material movement and picking. But a new class of warehouse software is poised to drive even greater results than those promised by the much anticipated and talked about robots. If you haven’t already, it’s time to look at the benefits of this new software.
Distribution centers are highly complex, real-time operations comprising large capital investments like robotic pick engines, goods-to-person systems, unit sortation and automated guided vehicles. They leverage large, expensive software systems like enterprise resource planning (ERP) and warehouse management systems (WMS). And there are custom interfaces tying all of this together.
When business requirements change, it’s a time-consuming and expensive process to modify or upgrade all these elements. So, while today’s business environment calls for flexibility and speed, companies are often hamstrung by their legacy distribution systems. Warehouse execution systems (WES) evolved to solve this problem.
Driving Efficiency and Speed
Warehouse execution systems integrate all those elements together — coordinating their activities like a conductor leads an orchestra. In doing so, a WES can drive faster order-processing speed because it has real-time knowledge of the status of all the components in a DC — including material handling equipment, labor, in-storage and in-process inventory, and orders. It acts as an “efficiency engine” — balancing out the peaks and valleys of the integrated process and making the DC more productive, cost-efficient and streamlined. It’s real time in a way that ERP and WMS systems are not — optimizing on the fly.
And by streamlining the entire process, a higher volume of orders can be processed using the existing hardware and software. Getting more out of the same assets means putting off an investment in new equipment, or postponing a lengthy and painful software upgrade.
Another — often-overlooked — benefit of WES is its ability to simplify the piloting of new technologies. Companies need a less risky, inexpensive way to test new technologies to determine the value they bring to an operation. An open WES (one that is not tied to a particular vendor’s equipment) will have interfaces that let you “plug and play” much more easily than the current pain and expense associated with custom coding. A WES allows you to “try” new technologies more easily. And as more innovative technologies come to market, and come down in price, this ability to have a “pilot platform” to test new technologies becomes even more appealing.
Things get really interesting when science-based algorithms and artificial intelligence are incorporated into warehouse execution systems, and they become predictive and preemptive. Soon these systems will anticipate bottlenecks and prevent them, by redeploying people, rescheduling order drops and rerouting orders around a problem before it occurs. And these systems will start anticipating and scheduling maintenance before it is needed. We’re not quite there, but we’re getting close. It’s time to get familiar with this powerful new software if you want to retain your competitive advantage.
Tim Johnson is senior director of systems, and Roger Counihan is vice president of sales at Fortna Inc.
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