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  Manufacturing Insights   |   December, 2006
Lean Warehouse Control Systems Transform Distribution Centers
by Thomas R. Cutler

Production losses, increased cost, and inefficient pick and pack methods, can drain capital resources and precious time. Getting the advantage and sustaining that effort, it is essential to streamline the order fulfillment rule process from time of order receipt to the time of shipping. Efficiently organizing order fulfillment rules and procedures can reduce cost, reduce order cycle time, and optimize labor.

When choosing a Warehouse Control Systems (WCS) it is important to understand warehouse needs and benefits of having an integrated Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) before starting the selection process. The goal may be to automate warehouse operations or upgrade to a more robust system.

WCS are a key part of the supply chain and provide directed stock rotation, intelligent picking directives, automatic consolidation and cross-docking to maximize the use of valuable warehouse space. The systems also direct and optimizes stock put-away based on real-time information about the status of bin utilization.

Many companies offer Warehouse Control Systems but there are very few that specialize in WCS technology. Companies like FKI Logistex, Diamond Phoenix and Fortna provide a WCS yet they typically provide conveyor systems and the WCS is another offering. Best of breed solutions require a comprehensive understanding and specificity of the technology.

Pick and Pack is a part of a complete supply chain management focused on the needs of retailers and entails processing small to large quantities of product, often truck or train loads and disassembling them, picking the relevant product for each destination and re-packaging with shipping label affixed, invoice included.

Warehouse management systems utilize Auto ID Data Capture technology, such as barcode scanners, mobile computers, wireless LANs and potentially RFID to efficiently monitor the flow of products. Once data has been collected, there is either batch synchronization with, or a real-time wireless transmission to a central database. The database can then provide useful reports about the status of goods in the warehouse.

QC Software is one of the few stand-alone providers of Tier 1 warehouse control systems; utilizing state of the art technology combined with extensive research, development, and rigorous testing, the QC Enterprise suite is designed to be modular in nature, easily configurable, and platform independent. Few WCS systems are a highly scalable solution which can satisfy the needs of any size warehouse.

Key capabilities of effective WCS solutions must include relieving a customer host computer of managing a real-time material handling automation interface, maximizing system throughput and performance, and utilizing the most efficient methods for pallet, case and item routing.

A warehouse control system must communicate in real-time with the host ERP as well as the material handling hardware. It manages the entire conveyor routing process and the operational aspect of the picking and shipping (order fulfillment) functions within the distribution center.

Systems are PC-based and are designed to handle all the physical aspects of a warehouse or distribution center, including material handling equipment control, stock location mapping, inter-location movement control, inter-zone routing, allocation of stock to dispatches, order management and dock door interface control, all with unlimited operator interface. Material handling equipment control includes control of cranes, trucks, conveyors, carousels and other equipment, using network, radio or infrared communication links.

Picking capabilities must include support for various picking models, such as paper pick lists, RF terminals, goods-to-man, picking robots and pick-to-light; support for fixed and dynamically assigned picking locations; automatic replenishment based on minimum level or future demand; picked container building to defined rules of height, weight and stock segregation; consolidation of pick requirements into waves; pick walk minimization; and configurable workload balancing.

The Right Part at the Right Place at the Right Time - Just as you would expect the right medicine in the right dosage to be delivered at the right time, implementation of WCS (Warehouse Control System) with built-in decision support that supports the orderly process of distributing right part at the right place at the right time.

The Order Management System must reduce cycle time and reduce error rates by picking orders and placing them directly into shipping cartons. Utilizing cartonization logic, the system ensures that each carton is not over packed and is based on product dimensions and weight orders.

Information is downloaded to the WMS, the volume and weight of the items are calculated, with a 'dunnage' factor for packing materials, and suggests the proper size carton for the order. If it is determined that the order is comprised of more than one carton, the WMS will allocate SKUs in such a way to minimize the route cartons must travel and avoid multiple cartons being diverted into the same pick zones.

Other inefficiencies of the more manual 'pick and pass' process were overcome by implementing zone skipping. Cartons traveling on an automated conveyor are now routed only to the required pick zones, decreasing the actual throughput time and yielding a reduction of touch-points a carton is touched throughout the picking process. "Imagine driving down the road and stopping at every exit, even though it's not your exit, just because it's there. That's what zone skipping prevents," according to Tom Verzi, vice-president of QC Software.

The WCS is designed to manage activities within the four walls of a distribution facility just like an MES system for manufacturing. Large companies with many distribution centers tend to have a dedicated WCS. Although wide area networks have become more efficient, the problem still remains that networks do get dropped. When the network is not available to “talk” to the host system, no picking gets done. With a WCS, on site, the order fulfillment process which includes picking, replenishment, and shipping can continue and productivity and lean efficiencies are maintained.

Modifications to the shipping process are often put into place. This includes automatic printing of packing documents and the implementation of a shipment management system powered by ConnectShip (a UPS product) providing a single server, multi-carrier shipping system. Further streamlining the process involved installing 'print and apply' technology which automated the printing of shipping labels and applying them directly to the shipping carton. This eliminates the need for manual shipping stations.

Managing and controlling the warehouse has become the focal point of many businesses, and with the correct WCS, an operation can take control and turn what was once a drain into an operational gain. With good "visibility" and “control” of all warehouse activities, proper business decisions can be made to increase profitability and obtain and sustain the competitive edge.

Thomas R. Cutler is the President & CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based TR Cutler, Inc., the largest manufacturing marketing firm worldwide – Cutler is the founder of the Manufacturing Media Consortium of twenty seven hundred journalists and editors writing about trends in manufacturing. Cutler is also the author of the Manufacturers’ Public Relations and Media Guide. Cutler is a frequently published author within the manufacturing sector with more than 300 feature articles authored annually; he can be contacted at

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