State of the Warehouse

— June 15, 2007

There are several takes on what's best for warehousing, and all call for a confluence of technologies.

The Japanese term muda, meaning waste, is at the core of the successful Toyota Production System, a "lean manufacturing" ideal promoted by Toyota's Taiichi Ohno. According to Ohno, the ideal warehousing environment identifies and eliminates eight incarnations of muda: defects, transportation, human motion, waiting, inventory, over-production, over-processing and underutilized skill.

A look at where warehousing technologies are moving to shows that muda elimination is well underway, and (however you prefer to consider it) these same strategies are defining competitive supply chain players and delivering real ROI.

For example, warehouse management systems (WMS) that make product information and location quickly available to forklift drivers and other warehouse workers speed up pick and put-away processes. More sophisticated WMS will also suggest the optimal sequence of performing picking, replacement and put-away events.

Thom Raddatz, a warehousing manager for Seaquist Closures, a manufacturer of dispensers, estimates (in literture from rugged computer maker Glacier Computers) that were it not for the time savings made possible with his WMS solution of onboard Glacier computers tied into an SAP system, he'd need 50 percent more forklifts to complete the work currently performed.

LXE, another manufacturer of rugged solutions, suggests that new technologies are emerging that will enable further increases in productivity and accuracy. It's developing ARIA (adaptive recognition and information assurance), a framework of mobile computing technologies, mobile applications and new business processes that it believes will encourage greater harmony between supply chain processes. ARIA emphasizes "the perfect execution of the pick" by moving beyond operator-initiated identification. Instead of a forklift operator viewing on screen where a pallet is and then scanning the pallet with a handheld device, with ARIA the operator would receive spoken directions from the WMS via a headset, and then once in close proximity, an RFID reader on the operator's belt would instantly begin a dialogue with an RFID tag on the pallet. In this case, the driver would save the time of scanning the tag himself, and his hands would be free for other work.

Jon Rasmussen, industry marketing director of consumer goods for Intermec, says the future of warehousing is more toward synthesizing the market's expanding options. "What we've been focusing on is not only developing the new technologies but saying, 'How can we get these into existing environments, so people don't have to throw away their existing WMS, or re-do their business practices to take advantage of what can go on with RFID and with speech?'"

The ideal situation is having the option of using voice input, or scanner input, or RFID input when the situation demands it. "Usually you're sacrificing efficiency when you're putting in accuracy," continues Rasmussen. "But if you can combine two elements--one to give you efficiency while you're picking up the accuracy--then you're either going to make people better or at least keep them all on par."

At this time, there isn't yet a terminal emulation session that layers together all of these pieces, says Rasmussen. "Most of us are ironing out the kinks, but should have something out mid to late this year." //

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