The remarkable growth of logistics and distribution in the past fifty years has been possible due to advancements in information technology. Warehouse operators have increasingly adopted technology in order to be effective and efficient as well as to have better productivity. Information technology, if properly applied, can reduce material handling costs, minimize or eliminate costly mistakes, achieve speed and accuracy and enable a high level of customer service delivery.
A market research study conducted by Peerless Media Research Group in September 2011, re-affirms that managers involved in material handling are looking up to major information technology solutions to improve overall process efficiencies. Technology has always played a significant role in warehouse processes and automated materials handling systems. With it, transactions and status of products can be constantly tracked and the performance of the warehouse as well as the employees can be measured. Information concerning goods can also be reliably captured with little or no errors.
Two basic technologies are available for warehouse management even though there are some overlaps in functionality. These are the Warehouse Control System and Warehouse Management System which can be integrated with many Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software.
Warehouse Management System (WMS)
This software manages the overall activity within the warehouse; it processes transactions, including employee performance, receiving put away, order selection and shipping. It also directs the movement of materials from one location to another as well as inventory management and circle counting. The WMS enables maximization of the use of wireless terminals, scanners, RFID tags and bar codes to identify, track, locate and control inventory quickly and accurately throughout the warehouse or distribution centre. Productivity is tracked by capturing time, date, and operator information every time a product moves. The WMS can be used to measure the performance of the warehouse using metrics such as orders processed per hour, the number of cases shipped, the total number of mixed cases and full cases shipped, age of oldest unshipped order etc.
The Differences Between the WMS and WCS can be illustrated thus:
A warehouse Management System receives a command that 5 items of SKU “X” and 6 of SKU “Y” will be needed in 10 hours ahead of time. But other issues such as a logjam in a conveyor may have arisen before it acts. A warehouse control system can prevent problems by working and correcting the situation in real-time and adapting to the current situation to make a last-minute decision based on prevailing activity and operational status.
Warehouse Control System (WCS)
The Warehouse Control System acts as a brain for automated warehouses and distribution centres. It provides communication and bridges the gap between the Warehouse Management System (WMS) and other material handling the equipment. Thus, it acts as a single point of control to efficiently direct and manage automated material, handling and order processing within the warehouse. It interfaces between the WMS and automated devices such as AS/RS, carousels, etc., and generates a real-time view of warehouse operations. The WCS acts like a floor supervisor present in real-time to get the job done by the most effective means as I described earlier.
How Technology Works In Warehouse And Distribution Centers
Receiving: When goods arrive at the warehouse, a mobile scanner is used to scan barcode or RFID tag to record their arrival. The WMS then directs the worker to designated put-away location based on the item, size, shelf life and predicted consumption schedule. Workers then store the items and scan a shelve label to verify the placement of the items. Each scan leads the user to the next task and updates the host system.
Picking, put-away, and replenishment: These operations are now enhanced by voice technology, which involves the use of voice direction and speech recognition software. Order pickers wear headphone and microphones connected to the wireless wearable computer. When an order is to be picked, the WMS tells the picker (using voice commands) where to go, item and quantity to be picked or moved. The picker then identifies the item picked and the location by speaking into the microphone using pre-defined commands. The information is transmitted to the computer which then transmits it back to the main system for verification. If there is an error, the picker is immediately informed.
Voice technology is increasingly gaining ground over the use of paper or mobile-based computer systems that require workers to read instructions and scan barcodes or RFID tags. The major advantage of voice technology is that the workers’ hands and eyes are free, allowing for improved efficiency, accuracy and safety. The technology was initially limited to, order picking operations, but it is now used for other warehouse operations, including receiving, put-away, replenishment, shipping and returns processing.
Pick-to-light: It involves the use of a display device mounted in front of the shelves where items are stored. When an order is to be picked, the device illuminates, showing the quantity to be picked. Once an item is picked, the worker presses a button on the device to show that the item has been picked. When all the required orders have been picked, a master display device light up showing a green light to indicate that the action is complete and the worker can go on to carry out other tasks. If there is an error, a red master light shows to indicate that a correction is necessary. At the end of the process, information is transmitted to the WMS to close the order.
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