Warehouse of the Future: Adopting Automation within Your Supply Chain – Part 1 of 2

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There’s currently a digital supply chain transformation that’s happening faster than the physical supply chain can react, requiring hybrid solutions in semi-automated environments where humans and robots work in tandem. New incentives to modernize operational capabilities should be added that capture efficiencies not previously achieved, while laying the foundation of a digitalized supply chain, continuously re-evaluating plans and evolving for performance.

Automation has been looked at as a solution to operational challenges, but trends in the marketplace signify an unprecedented rate of adoption taking hold in the coming decade. E-commerce is driving service expectations to levels that may not be achieved without the use of highspeed picking alternatives to manual operations. The aging generations in mature economies and challenges securing a loyal millennial workforce for repetitive tasks are creating increased disruption to staffing, forcing employers to look to automation to offset risk of labor shortages. Continued innovation has reduced costs of entry for automated capabilities, delivering improved business case justification for automation of many forms.

With such a strong justification, operations leaders across the globe are seeking ways to capture the potential that automation offers. Large scale transformation of distribution networks is capital intensive, however, and rarely warranted given the pace of change – however rapid – and market uncertainties. Therefore, we’re forced to look within existing environments to identify opportunities to introduce automation into existing facilities, combining automated equipment with manual operations, which requires the added complexity of orchestrating work across semiautomated operations. This scenario introduces the question of how to create an optimal environment allowing warehouse management systems (WMS) to orchestrate work across manual and automated areas to ensure efficient operations and maintain quality and service levels.

Part 1 of this 2-part blog series will take a deeper dive into today’s automation systems landscape and retrofitting today’s supply chain with automation. Part 2 of the series will cover disruptive technologies and digitalization and next generation capabilities.

The Current Landscape of Automation Systems

In automated environments, WMS often work alongside warehouse control systems (WCS) that manage the routing of containers as they traverse the material handling equipment, and warehouse execution systems (WES) which often have basic task management capabilities but not the level of control or optimization of a WMS. Below are a few general groupings of automation that typically leverage these entities in different ways.

  • Conveyors and sortation equipment receive destination / routing information from the WMS and leverage the WCS to divert containers to the appropriate location.
  • Pick execution equipment, including pick-to-light, carousels, or A-frames will receive pick instructions from the WMS and rely on the WCS to control the MHE. At times, these devices will manage task distribution and user interfaces for the performance of picks, though often, the WMS will manage the tasks through prioritization, and provide a common user experience (using consistent equipment where appropriate) for work performed in the pick modules and in bulk storage which feeds it (this work would include putaways, cycle counting, and picks where appropriate). Often, a WES has been sufficient for high volume outbound operations in retail, but with increasing emphasis on service levels, the advanced functionality of a WMS specific to inventory accuracy, pick module replenishment, cross-docking, and exception handling, the WMS brings a strong justification for a two-pronged approach.
  • Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) are well established, though adoption is increasing as more forklift providers offer driverless units. These units can take direction from a WMS (typical when involved in semi-automated environments) or WES (often used in ASRS racking systems where materials are commingled or when the vehicles can follow multiple routes to alleviate congestion). In either scenario, a WMS is often utilized to manage inventory allocation to customer and order.
  • Palletizers use visual determination for pallet building capabilities, but most in use require some level of consistency in product dimensions at the layer level. Advanced pallet building and robotic arm picking capabilities are increasing in use, but require some consistency in dimensions. Improvements in digital sensing will soon be changing the game here.

Retrofitting Today’s Supply Chain with Automation

Automation adoption will continue to accelerate in response to advanced service level expectations and e-commerce, with a focus on scale and speed, whereas a continued migration of margin focused businesses will drive adoption of driverless vehicles and high-density storage modules, especially in cold storage or mega-cities with high volume real estate. The introduction of automation into the existing facilities will bring challenges, such as:

  • Traditional footprints, system capabilities, and business processes will be challenged when faced with the introduction of conveyance, sortation, and pick execution equipment. A natural inclination to delineate businesses, and potentially create channel-specific operations, can result in artificially inflated inventory levels and/or reduced service levels in increasingly sensitive environments to failures in this area. Multi-channel capabilities can be achieved, often driving operational leaders to adopt pick execution capabilities to distribute work without recognizing the backlash to overall service levels of having disparate capabilities with traditional WMS controlled processes. The results, if not thought through, can have repercussions on inventory accuracy, exception management, and operational efficiency.
  • The introduction of driverless vehicles (AGV or ASRS) offer strong advantages in terms of scale and cost, ROI projections in union environments can often deliver break even points less than a year after go-live, even in new projects. However, legacy storage equipment and material flow can introduce limitations. The environments best prepared for the introduction of driverless forklifts are those managing full pallets in bulk locations (where dimensions are predictable and stack requirements are well documented), or those where racking capacity is capable of managing fixed locations that can be tracked in the WMS (if locations can be dedicated to a specific lot), or in the WCS (where multiple pallet locations can be managed by the WCS but the WMS can manage storage/allocation in concert with non-automated areas). In more complex operations, the WCS can take a more active role in determining work and allocation, but this often drives customization and redundancy with WMS functions specific to the needs of the business.
  • More robust, piece level management in advanced pick modules controlled by ASRS such as goods-to-person automation, offer advanced capabilities for high volume distributors and e-tailers. Often, this will require tote storage of product to standardize the storage capabilities, though concessions for non-conveyables must be considered. Integrating pick and pack operations with traditional areas of the same operation also force decisions on how to integrate inventory management with shipping capabilities, adding complexity to projects as WMS and WCS providers offer similar capabilities.

Check back for part-2 of the blog series, where we’ll go into more detail around the technologies driving next generation warehouse automation and digitalization and next generation capabilities.

For more information download the Future Series white paper, “Adopting automation in the digital age.”

About the Author

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Matthew Butler, Industry Strategies Director, JDA Software

More more information contact, 0414 966 232.

Visit www.jda.com

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Building the Business Case for Digital Transformation of Supply Chain Planning

It seems like the phrase “digital transformation” is everywhere these days. There are as many definitions for digital transformation and articles on the subject. I like the definition provided in i-scoop’s online guide to digital transformation.

“Digital transformation is the profound transformation of business and organisational activities, processes, competencies and models to fully leverage the changes and opportunities of a mix of digital technologies and their accelerating impact across society in a strategic and prioritised way, with present and future shifts in mind.”

The digitisation of a supply chain involves creating a detailed data model that mirrors the intricacies of an actual end-to-end supply chain network. (Learn more in Technology Evaluation Center’s report, The Impact of Digital Transformation on the Supply Chain.) Done right, a digital twin will have enough detail to model the information, money, and product flow from acquisition of components, through production, distribution and fulfilment to the customer. Model element include forecasts, capacities, inventory positions, lead-times, resource availability, costs, revenues, and profits. Finally, the model needs constant updates of customer, production, purchase, and distribution order status to ensure analysis and resulting actions reflect what is currently happening in the physical supply chain.

The benefits of digital transformation are plentiful. Below are three tangible benefits of digitally transforming your supply chain:

Process Automation:

A very visible benefit of building a digital twin of your supply chain is the ability to use the information to automate routine process steps and free up resources to work on more value-added activities. Advanced supply chain systems have exception-based workflow and active alerts that when used in conjunction with user-defined limits can automatically process purchase, manufacturing, distribution and customer orders. Human intervention only takes place when plans, transactions, orders, etc. fall outside of defined limits.

Continuous Planning & Optimal Response:

Digitization of the supply chain unleashes the full capabilities of today’s powerful supply chain solutions leading to game changing competitive breakthroughs in customer service and value creation. One such capability is the application of algorithmic optimization in the areas of demand, inventory, supply, manufacturing, and transportation planning. The rich supply chain data available through a digital twin provides the foundation and inputs required for effective algorithmic optimization.

Another advanced supply chain capability is continuous planning. A supply chain digital twin contains up-to-date information on capacities and transactions. As new events take place (for example a new customer order, or a delayed replenishment) a planner can quickly determine an optimal response. Continuous planning and optimal response capabilities often lead to reduction in costs (manufacturing, inventory, transportation) and improvements in customer service (fill-rates, cycle-times).

Advanced Analytics:

Often the largest benefits from digitizing the supply chain come from new insights gained from the ability to conduct in-depth end-to-end analysis. The ability to analyze expected demand versus capacitated supply and determine financial impacts of multiple “what-if” scenarios provides the information needed to head off potential risks and fully embrace opportunities. A digital twin of the supply chain provides the information needed to make smart decisions on when to enter new markets, where to introduce new products, when and where to increase production capacity, and how to effectively compete. A digital twin provides a rich environment for running “what-if” scenarios of likely disruptions to determine the appropriate response before they happen. When the disruption does take place, a pre-established plan can be executed beating competitors to market.

How might a digital supply chain transformation change your daily life?

  • You have real-time, accurate information, eliminating the need for data manipulationPicture1blog
  • Collaboration on actual supply chain activities is online and in real-time
  • “What-If” scenarios and simulations are automatic, intelligent and include sufficient data to make informed decisions
  • Supply chain decisions move from calendar driven to continuous optimal response

A digital transformation of your supply chain can help you harness visibility, velocity and value and allow you to compete and win in today’s competitive marketplace.

To learn more about digital transformation, read Technology Evaluation Center’s report, The Impact of Digital Transformation on the Supply Chain.

 

About the author 

Hank Canitz PictureHenry Canitz is The Product Marketing & Business Development Director at Logility. To read more of Henry’s insights visit www.logility.com/blog.