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Thin Margins Drive Warehouse Automation Solutions

by Thomas R. Cutler   |   September, 2012

Manufacturing Insights

High volume electronics and industrial parts distributors are facing thinner margins. Globally these companies and other warehouse distribution center operations are seeking automation solutions to offset razor-thin profits.

Premier Farnell serves 1.2 million customers worldwide as a marketer and distributor of electronic, electrical and industrial component products for maintenance, repair and operations. When escalating costs of business threatened margins on UK sales to Europe, the company responded with a bold distribution strategy: opening a new, automated warehouse in Liege, Belgium. Success of the move required more than just lower shipping costs; it also demanded significantly higher levels of productivity and efficiency.

The company looked for automation applications which integrated the WMS (warehouse management system) with ordering and billing systems as well as controlling the state-of-the-art conveyor, and directing order selection. The processes had to maximize throughput and set new benchmarks for warehouse automation. According to solutions provider Systems Application Engineering (SAE), based in Houston, Texas, there are critical warehouse automation features to drive productivity and profitability. Jerry Sacks, President of SAE noted, "Optimizing and controlling movement of totes and orders along warehouse conveyors...verifying items and counts for all orders and replenishments is critical. It's also vital that warehouse managers are able to capture shorts and out-of-stocks and generate adjustments to customers' invoices." Other automation characteristics needed in the warehouse automation include:
  • Initiating replenishments/ restocks
  • Giving managers a real-time, "at-a-glance" view of workflow throughout the warehouse
  • Holding/rerouting order totes awaiting replenishments
  • Accommodating multinational shipping requirements
Thousands of selectors pick millions of cases error-free every day. Sadly for many warehouses lacking automation solutions this is not the case. SAE developed a patented application (Selector Pro) that automates and directs picking activities throughout the warehouse. The hands-free voice guidance or wearable configuration is designed to meet the demands of various operating environments.

Warehouse Automation Solutions: Traceability Standards

Maximizing productivity and return-on-investment (ROI) is the goal of automation solutions. Combining text-based information with revolutionary voice guided instructions for seamless hybrid applications must also include laser bar code scanning for location verification and GS1 product traceability.

The GS1 Global Traceability standard was designed to provide a single traceability process to comply with all quality and regulatory requirements. According to GS1, the product recall standard enables an effective automated notification system in the case of recalls and withdrawals. This standard serves as a common-sense blueprint enabling all supply chain stakeholders to implement more effective and timely product recall processes and notifications.

SAE supports GS1 because it ensures interoperability with trading partners and allows efficient recall or tracing of raw materials origin from upstream suppliers. This business process standard describes the traceability process and defines minimum requirements for companies of all sizes across industry sectors.

Voice Guidance Rather than Voice Picking Proves Best for Warehouse Automation

Voice guidance with instant text messaging and keypad functionality is a better choice for warehouse automation than mere voice picking solutions. Because it includes wireless "on-demand" label printing the real time impacts drive efficiency and effectiveness. Sacks noted, "The wearable system directs the selection process by assigning orders and downloading text-based instructions to wireless computers worn by individual selectors. Data input and validation for each pick, are accomplished through laser scanning of bar codes on pick slots and cases, and by keypad input of quantities, variable case weights and other data required to complete the pick accurately at each location."

Tens of thousands of wearable units are on the job daily in the most demanding warehouse environments, delivering a continuous return-on-investment for companies like Premier Farnell.

Voice-Guidance picking is ideal for the retail, wholesale, and foodservice industries. The hybrid picking solution offers productivity and accuracy gains that typical voice recognition systems cannot match.

Voice guidance and text-based communications combined is a hybrid solution which maximizes productivity with heads-up navigation and pick instructions supplemented with text dialogs. This patented voice and bar code scanning produces maximum accuracy and productivity because it is scanning the barcode instead of speaking abbreviated digits. Similarly patented voice and label printing automations allows for high volume print case, tote or pallet labels on-demand during selection. This also boosts productivity, eliminating preprinted bulk labels while preventing mislabeling. Ultimately good margins are only possible when picking results are stable and reliable, resulting in the best customer service (generating more business).
Thomas R. Cutler is the President & CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based, TR Cutler, Inc., (www.trcutlerinc.com). Cutler is the founder of the Manufacturing Media Consortium including more than 4000 journalists, editors, and economists writing about trends in manufacturing, industry, material handling, and process improvement. Cutler is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, Online News Association, American Society of Business Publication Editors, and Committee of Concerned Journalists, as well as author of more than 500 feature articles annually regarding the manufacturing sector. Cutler is the most published freelance industrial journalist worldwide. Cutler can be contacted at trcutler@trcutlerinc.com. See More Details.

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