When it comes to managing an effective warehouse there are literally thousands of considerations to take into account. How best to use the storage space available? What kind of shelving should be used and where should it be put? Where should the products be stored on these shelves for maximum efficiency?
These may seem like easy decisions to make and if only a few hundred items are being stored it is. When thousands of items are being stored, making the necessary calculations is beyond a human to calculate.
Automated software is the key to managing an effective warehouse operation. The best of breed warehouse management systems (WMS) use virtual models to simulate the warehouse layout and the locations of all the products. This allows the WMS to calculate the most efficient route around the warehouse for the picker to take.
Barcodes, voice command and radio frequency identification (RFID) are the commonplace technologies of the the most advanced warehouses currently, but there is a better more cost effective option - the cloud. As physically tagging items with RFID is expensive, the cloud offers a more cost-effective solution. Stock is not simply logged in on arrival and then logged out again on it’s despatch. Every movement the stock makes is logged and timestamped virtually, meaning there’s no need to physically tag them.
The cloud offers the opportunity to build a warehouse management system on the same architecture as the best-in-class ecommerce cloud technology, which allows for huge benefits. Information sharing is as fluid as buying from any webshop and the whole organisation can work on the same underlying data at the same time. If there is a problem the warehouse team will know about it at the moment it occurs not tomorrow.
Efficiency through technology
Automation is the key to reducing human errors in any process, not just warehousing and order fulfilment. Automation reduces the probability of a mistake occurring. It is very important, however, to note that simply using a computer will not help reduce errors. Computers won't make mistakes, but the human-computer interface does allow for complacency and system allowed errors.
A new, more efficient means of working occurs where a team member isn’t just assisted by technology, but is physically restricted from making mistakes. This might conjure up images of an oppressive Orwellian nightmare, but it is really a method of working that empowers team members to think productively about their work, rather than being forced to focus on every action in case they make an error.
Shigeo Shingo’s ‘Poka-Yoke’ techniques are a great example. This philosophy relies on making an action physically impossible so that the a person had no option but the correct one. A good example of this is a three pin plug. A two pin plug can could easily be placed in a socket upside down. Putting a “this way up sticker on it” would make it unlikely for a person to put it in the wrong way but not impossible. By adding a third pin you make it impossible to get it wrong. While this example is a physical one, the same concept can be used in any process to ensure the correct steps are followed in order.
In the warehouse this technique can be used in many areas, for example, to ensure it is not possible for the wrong products to be packed, or for an order to be sent out to the wrong address. Many warehouses start each day with a stack of paper orders. Team members then work through each in turn packing. With 50-100 pieces of paper flying around at a time it is understandable that, however vigilant staff may be, occasionally the wrong packing slip or address will be used.
The solution is to only ever have one piece of paper on hand - the right one. To do this all you need is to bring the printer to the team member at their packing desk then print to order address labels and packing slips. The packer can then double check with a quick barcode scan, confirming it’s the right one.
With companies beginning to offer next day delivery later and later, and even same day delivery, the pressure on warehouses and distribution centres is increasing. Automated cloud technology allows warehouses to react faster and work more efficiently - without the need for a supercomputer or super-human abilities. While the methods used may vary, the technique is always the same - to make it very hard or impossible for an action to be done incorrectly in the first place.