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Warehouse Management System - The Big Squeeze
Sunday, 01 November 2009 00:00

Users rarely wring out all that a warehouse management system has to offer. In fact, it may be one of the most underutilized tools you have. Here are several ways to put your WMS to better use to improve overall operations inside the four walls—and beyond.

Warehouse management systems (WMS) play a key role in the supply chain, but—like many other types of software—are frequently underutilized by the logistics professionals who invest in them. They can control basic functions like shipping, receiving, put-away and picking, but did you know that WMS can also help shippers attain 10 to 15 percent productivity improvements by simply adding a new piece of hardware or wireless device to the mix? That’s right. By uncovering the top layers and digging down deeper into their WMS’ capabilities, shippers can realize benefits that far exceed their initial expectations.

Calling WMS a “billion-dollar market,” Steve Banker, director of supply chain solutions for ARC Advisory Group, says demand for such systems has grown steadily over the last decade, namely due to the significant and expedient return on investment that WMS typically provides. “The payback for WMS is highly reliable,” says Banker, “and usually takes two years or less.”

That reliable payback period has driven many shippers to adopt WMS. In fact, Greg Aimi, research director at AMR Research, calls WMS a “mandatory system” that, once installed and running, rarely requires changing or upgrading. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to extract more productivity and efficiency out of an existing system. In fact, there are several ways to put a WMS to better use within the four walls of a warehouse—and beyond.

Don’t take WMS for granted

It’s not unusual for Bob Heaney to come across logistics managers who are not taking full advantage of the features and functions of their supply chain software, especially WMS. After installation and setup, and with the basic functionalities up and running, the software handbook is tossed aside and management takes for granted the fact that the system is being used to its fullest potential.

“There definitely tends to be 'under-adoption’ of the technology that’s already in place,” says Heaney, senior research analyst for supply chain management for Aberdeen Group. “Many times this happens because more training is needed, or the software’s functionality requires a specific hardware solution that’s not in place.”

Consider, for example, the manufacturer who’s using a WMS equipped with real-time, paperless picking functionality. The capability would work well in an environment where RF technology (the hardware enabler in this case) has already been deployed and is in use, but would fall into the unused category at a company where that technology was lacking. “This is just one example of the gap that exists between software functionality and hardware capability,” says Heaney. “Such gaps can prevent a shipper from taking its WMS to the next performance level.”

To avoid such disconnects, Heaney advises shippers to understand exactly what their current WMS offers in terms of functionality and to look deeper into their hardware capabilities to figure out if those WMS functions are usable. “If you don’t have the hardware in place,” he says, “consider whether it would make sense to invest in that hardware in order to leverage those software capabilities for your particular operation.”

Proper training is another key consideration for companies looking to max out their WMS investments. A workforce that’s not up to speed on the functionalities of the software and how to use them, he says, can quickly undermine the software investment by not using it to its fullest potential. “Providing proper training,” says Heaney, “and helping users understand the system’s capabilities can be a gold mine when it comes to maximizing a WMS.”

While the benefits of training may seem obvious, they often fall by the wayside once a system gets up and running. “When you bring in a new system, it’s important that people understand how to properly utilize it to its capacity and that they are trained to do it in a way that helps you realize the full benefit of the deployment,” says Heaney. “To keep those benefits coming requires extensive employee training, but the payback can be significant when your workforce is equipped to leverage the WMS in a way that achieves maximum potential.”

 

WMS

 

 

Connect the dots for optimization

But there’s more to maximizing your WMS than just training. Within a warehouse’s four walls, Heaney says shippers who connect the dots between their various operations and the WMS’ ability to control those operations are typically the ones who get the most out of their technology investments.

Users can do this, says Heaney, by looking carefully at the space where the WMS is deployed and making sure that you’re using a best practices approach across the board—and not just in specific areas.

For example, if you’re using RF-enabled paperless picking try combining it with paperless replenishment and confirmation, or directed put-away, to create a more streamlined process. This holistic approach will ensure that specific WMS capabilities don’t get ignored and underutilized.

“Make sure everyone is using the best possible methods for moving and tracking product through the warehouse,” says Heaney, who estimates a 10 to 20 percent productivity improvement for shippers who follow his advice and you’ll avoid the issue of partial deployment that many companies find challenging.

Aimi sees shippers making the most obvious WMS mistakes with slotting, or the practice of repositioning product in a warehouse to reduce the distance that product and pickers must travel. By maximizing a WMS’ slotting function and moving to electronic and RF systems, Aimi says firms can significantly cut down on that travel time for every item, thus increasing the speed at which those products move.

Like Heaney, Aimi sees RF as a major enabler for shippers attempting to eke more out of their existing WMS. “Give workers electronic mobile computers to work with,” says Aimi, “and the amount of moving around they have to do will be reduced significantly, with work being sent to them right where they are.”

When hooked into an existing WMS system, technology like voice and other hands-free applications can also be liberating for warehouse workers who were previously tethered by paper, faxes, and phone lines. In certain environments, says Aimi, such investments not only result in productivity gains, but also safety improvements for the workers and the company itself.

“The individual who is picking product in a cold environment like a freezer may have a hard time punching numbers into a machine,” Aimi explains, adding that 10 to 15 percent productivity improvements are common with such upgrades. “Instead of cutting the fingers off their gloves, they can use hands-free, voice-enabled devices to get the job done faster and more safely”

Add hardware, explore all capabilities

If maximizing a WMS were easy, everyone would be doing it, and we wouldn’t be writing this article. In fact, any technology investment requires a long-term approach that includes not only milking the most functionality out of the system itself, but also ensuring that you have the proper hardware in place to support it and an optimal level of training for the individuals who are using it.

This balancing act isn’t always easy to achieve, but it’s one that pays off over time. As both Heaney and Aimi point out, shippers can often reap 10 to 20 percent in productivity improvements by simply adding a new piece of hardware to the mix, or by applying best practices across one or more areas of the warehouse itself.

Banker says those percentages can be increased over time by shippers who may not have initially wanted all of the bells and whistles associated with the WMS, but who choose to add them over time. “Many times companies are on a deadline to get the WMS up and running,” says Banker, “so they skip some of the functionalities in favor of getting those deadlines met.”

Consulting with the WMS vendor and/or having your IT team explore any unused capabilities can lead to unexpected efficiencies that require little time or money investments. Ideally, says Banker, that exercise will be handled in-house. “Have a handful of people on staff who understand the WMS functionalities and who can continue to configure the system and get more out of it with minimum involvement from the company you bought it from,” says Banker.

Using that strategy, shippers can break out of the complacency mold and continue to reap the benefits of their WMS long after the initial money and time is invested in the systems.

But getting there requires management buy-in, according to Heaney, who advises logistics managers to hone in on the fast ROI and significant rewards associated with WMS when requesting resources for such projects. “WMS is an investment that can stand up to any challenge and allow you to move your operations to a higher level,” says Heaney. “Who can argue with that?”

 

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