Automation is impacting warehouse operations in multiple ways, promising dramatic efficiencies in labor, hardware, software and order fulfillment, says Chris Arnold, president and chief operating officer of Trew.
SCB: What are the trends out there in the automation of distribution and fulfillment?
Arnold: There are significant trends happening right now in optimizing labor and fulfillment, along with micro strategies. It’s about the ability to bring product to operators efficiently, to optimize the workload that goes to each of the subsystems within a distribution center, and occasionally even a manufacturing site.
SCB: What do you mean by micro strategies?
Arnold: They’re strategies for placing fulfillment within a very small subset, optimized to execute product and deliver to the end user quickly.
SCB: You’re referring to the use of micro-fulfillment centers?
Arnold: Yes. That absolutely would be one of many examples.
SCB: So what’s going on in the labor side?
Arnold: Labor has always been a challenge. But with the ability to leverage warehouse execution software, there are ways to optimize labor so that it becomes less of a play. You’re getting greater productivity, accuracy and throughput with the same product subsystems.
SCB: You're talking about the centralization of multiple systems and tasks, all flowing into a general level of control?
Arnold: In a distribution or manufacturing center, there are subsystems of excellence. In order for them to operate perfectly, you need machine control, which receives product at a certain rate. There’s another level of warehouse control that makes sure all of the subsystems, like manufacturing, are feeding one another perfectly. If you miss a beat, you can never gain that optimization back, because it's gone.
SCB: How many levels of systems are we talking about here?
Arnold: The next level above the warehouse control system would be a warehouse execution system. Then you move to your warehouse management system or enterprise resource planning system. What sets a WES apart is the ability to look all the way down to the subsystem and say, what is the next best order optimization that should be made? And then, delivering that so you gain maximum efficiency of throughput.
SCB: Are there any issues involved in integrating all of these warehouse systems with the ERP?
Arnold: When you get down to on-premise software, things that occur in a distribution or fulfillment site, there might be an ERP or WMS, but the optimization really happens on the warehouse execution side.
SCB: How do you manage the changing needs for labor within the warehouse? Do these systems do the job?
Arnold: They do. Most warehouse execution systems look at labor as just one of many components. When it comes to equipment, processes, labor, quality, and accuracy, the WES can determine what is the next best order or task, to create a continuous flow of work. It knows what labor's is coming, is currently available, or is soon to be leaving. It can then choose those orders based on outbound shipping patterns, to determine the next best ones to ensure throughput efficiency of the subsystems.
SCB: What role is artificial intelligence playing in the warehouse these days?
Arnold: It will happen over time. We'll probably see it more at the WES level in the next three to five years, beginning to make more strategic decisions that optimize operations management and supervisors. Currently though, I don't see it playing that much of a part. It just hasn’t evolved as fast as some of the other technologies.
SCB: What about robotics? Where is it being used today?
Arnold: There’s a tremendous amount of robotics going on, which is wonderful. It's great to see robotics being used to leverage labor technology. That's where the WES and the WCS begin to play nicely together with robotics. It’s just another tool that's been used for many years in other industries, and is now being brought into distribution and fulfillment.
SCB: D.C.s today must serve the needs of the omnichannel, handling traditional pallets for retail stores as well as e-commerce. Is this all happening under the same roof, and are these systems we're talking about making that possible?
Arnold: I do believe the systems are making it possible. It's really just about doing commerce now — how we take care of fulfilling an order in the best location at the right time with the right quantity. Instead of saying I have multiple channels to fulfill my business, I have one — a commerce channel. The systems determine where I put an order to optimize it for the business. A lot is happening at multiple levels.
SCB: Is this “commerce channel” happening at multiple facilities, from big D.C.s to micro-fulfillment centers? Can the system see where inventory is, regardless of location?
Arnold: So in most cases, a WES is handling optimization within a facility. There are layers where you can look at it within multiple facilities. Where it becomes challenging is at the next level, where an ERP and other systems determine where an order should be placed and how it needs to be optimized. We can't forget stores — they’re also a big location for fulfillment, and are part of the micro strategy that's occurring.
SCB: What most excites you about the future of automation in this area?
Arnold: It's the collaboration within the ecosystem between distribution and fulfillment and all the technologies and players. They’re beginning to work together as one industry, to solve the challenge that clients are experiencing collectively. But we aren’t there yet.
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