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Distribution centres: Moving from paper to modern systems

Posted: 09 Dec 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:distribution centre? Smart Gladiator? warehouse management system?

Technology has become an essential factor in many distribution centres (DC), taking over a number of manually intensive, paper-based processes. In fact, technology is being leveraged to create superior processes and connect workers flawlessly throughout the DC.

Early in 2000, I visited a Detroit-area DC that based its efficiency on highly disciplined paper-based processes, ruled by the iron fist of the DC manager. This tough woman had more than 30 years of experience in the organisation, which had a 50-plus history. The seventy-year-old owner still visited headquarters daily. My visit showed me clearly the source of their success: a willingness to change and improve. Instead of laying off experienced (i.e. older) workers, this company worked to update their skillsets and maintain their value in the organisation.

The company had called us in to deploy a warehouse management system (WMS). We found that the biggest challenge was not the technology, but the people, who were completely ingrained in the old, outdated systems. They wouldn't use the RF scan guns that have been deployed. Instead, they relied on old processes and tribal knowledge accumulated over years (i.e. seasonal variations in SKU velocity, the quickest and easiest path to a good outcome, who could answer what question, etc.).

Often, the go-to knowledge bearer was the DC manager herself; she knew a lot. With the new system, a System Directed Putaway capability configured the dimensions of the locations and the SKUs, based on the case or pallet. The WMS would calculate the size, volume and weight of the case/pallet and apply defined rules and display the location to the putaway operator. In the wake of the system, the DC manager would intervene and ask the operator to override the system. Getting the people to embrace the technology proved very difficult.

The case outlined above is not rare. In a nutshell, the technology progression has been similar all over. DCs started with paper-based processes, then upon the advent of RF networks and wireless technology, these organisations started tackling the change management issues inherent in any upgrade. RF handhelds were mobile computers that connected to the lean RF network, which would then connect to the WMS to help with data collection. Operators scanned barcodes or input data through a small keyboard.

In the early days, a basic low-speed network connection was all that was available, so thin clients (aka dumb terminals), with a display, keyboard and mouse, were commonly used to run iSeries or Unix sessions. Later, PCs became affordable, and IT managers migrated users to the more robust workstations. Workstations were placed strategically through the DC to give operators access to troubleshoot or look up information. Throughout these changes, the RF scanners remained the same.

More recently, as technologist recognised that workers often needed to use their hands to operate boxes or carry boxes, mobile devices that could be strapped on started to appear. This hands free solution theoretically doubled worker productivity since the hands could be used all the time. Next, voice activated systems, which allowed operators to talk to the system, brought hands free operation to reality.

The key learning was that DCs need to think about deploying process improvements rather than simply buying technologies. Every dollar spent should address a specific pain point or bring measurable improvement. For example, voice picking speeds up the work by creating a new process that let operators get more done with less movement, which saves time. Now, new processes are possible, and can be applied effectively to save time and money.

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