The logistics world is abuzz with chatter about the latest trends in automated warehouse management. The current craze seems to be wireless technology. But unlike many technological flashes in the pan, wireless is here to stay and for good reason.
Companies looking to boost their technological savvy by implementing a sophisticated warehouse management system (WMS) that integrates wireless capabilities will reap far-reaching benefits ranging from increased productivity to streamlined order and transportation management.
The Wave of the Future, Today
Older systems struggle to keep up with the demands of modern supply-chain execution. Many legacy systems handle only certain components of the logistics operation, such as receiving or location management. Amazingly, many companies still operate with paper-based systems, spreadsheets and human memory. Adding sub-systems to older, limited systems is expensive, time consuming, inefficient and ultimately counterproductive.
In contrast, 21st-century warehouse management systems deliver real-time access to current transaction status, customer information, product availability, inventory levels and other dynamic information over the Web and voice response systems (via telephone). Shipment information is fully supported as well, reporting defined events such as shipment notifications, inventory shortages and exception alerts via e-mail, pager, connected PDA and text messaging.
With a sophisticated wireless warehouse management system, managers and operators can query systems from workstations, wireless devices and even through voice access. The value of real-time information is higher than that provided by older batch methods of reporting. What is happening at any instant is available to anyone who needs to know, all the time.
Sophisticated service providers use browser-based software that takes the paperwork, guesswork and mistakes out of the most complex shipping operations. The best systems can manage the entire shipping process: transportation planning, outbound shipment manifesting, carrier and customer label generation, shipment tracking, carrier selection and detailed reporting. The best systems also support all the major carriers.
Future flexibility is essential. Changes to operations, user interfaces, reports and data structures should be implementable as part of a standard product, rather than created as one-off, expensive-to-support custom software. Systems built from the ground up using current technology such as Microsoft development tools, SQL Server and the WindowsNT/2000 platform ensure system speed, performance and reliability today and tomorrow.
Wireless communication dramatically increases the performance of mobile warehouse workers. Wireless technology also lets management participate in the decisions and activities of the mobile workforce in real time, making everyones job easier and vastly improving logistics within a warehouse operation.
The new generation of mobile computers relies on wireless communications to complete the information flow to workers on the floor and in the transportation system. Multimodal user interfaces feature voice recognition, barcode scanning, browser-based text and even video, to arm these front-line workers with real-time, accurate information so they can fulfill orders more efficiently and accurately and report exceptions faster.
Technologies like barcode scanning, radio-frequency, voice recognition and text-to-speech functions automate the fulfillment and shipping processes to levels unheard of just a few years ago. Workers can use a headset and a small light-weight mobile computer attached to their belts while deploying voice technology to perform tasks in the warehouse. In most cases, workers verbally respond to audible instructions issued by the warehouse management software. The workers hands, eyes and mind are free to focus on the desired task without the impediment of holding and reading a scanner or keying data into a hand-held device.
Although advanced wireless warehouse management systems may look expensive at first blush, they pay off big in improved performance from the get-go. For example:
Warehouse workers can perform their jobs much faster because they communicate verbally with the system, keeping their hands, eyes and ears focused on the work at hand.
Picking accuracy is improved with automatic, unobtrusive feedback that eliminates most errors resulting from refocusing attention from a hand-held device to the product to be selected.
Workers experience fewer distractions than with printed instructions or a hand-held computer.
Management receives real-time and summary worker productivity information, so the warehouse operates more efficiently.
All things considered, systems that offer multiple modes of communication, such as speech, barcode scanning, browser-based graphics and text, touch-screen and other inputs and outputs deliver a wide range of features at a reasonable cost.
How to Select the Best WMS
Whether youre selecting a simple low-cost paper-based solution or a sophisticated high-end application, multiple factors must be considered. These factors range from the cost of the solution, to the nature of the data being processed (that is, real-time or batched), to whether the system requires a high degree of customization vs. off-the-shelf functionality. Each company must assess needs based on organizational goals and develop a list of must-haves before beginning the evaluation process. Here are a few questions to ask prospective vendor partners:
· When was the system built? Even though mission-critical systems are judged strongly on past successes, if the history extends back too far, the system will be expensive to change and adapt to new business requirements. A long future is better than a long past.
· How was it built? Is it an older system, ported to a modern platform (like Microsoft NT) or was it written for the modern platform from the ground up? Was it built as an object-based system, using smaller components of code? Small pieces of code are easier to change than large blocks of dependent code.
· How does it interface and exchange data with other systems? Through application programming interfaces (APIs)? Flat-file interface? EDI? XML? How difficult is it to maintain these interfaces and to replicate data between systems?
· Can custom reports and labels be created in-house, or must the system vendor build them for you? (Report and label generation is one of the most common requests for custom alteration of a warehouse management system).
· Is the system rules-based? If so, does it support different rules for different clients and customers? Is it easy to set up inventory owned by different customers? Can inventory be organized in zones based on their environmental requirements (hazardous materials, damaged goods, temperature control, restricted access for valuable inventory)? Can each clients inventory be arranged in electronic catalogs, specific to each of their customers?
Warehousing and shipment management technology is undergoing rapid transformation. It is important to find a software vendor that can meet your needs now and for the long haul. The more capable and coordinated your systems are, the better chance you have to remain competitive and profitable, well into the future.
Joe Caston is an executive leader with 22 years of experience in the data networking and software industries. He is president and chief executive officer of Cadre Technologies, the leading provider of supply-chain management software for the warehouse, fulfillment, logistics and manufacturing industries. Cadres software packages offer versatile, on-demand, real-time information that streamlines the fulfillment operation, making the process more flexible, productive and profitable. For more information, visit Cadres Web site at www.cadretech.com or call 866-252-2373.