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How to Automate Your Warehouse
Warehouse automation is a “crawl-walk-run” process. Let’s start with the first steps of your warehouse automation journey:
1. Start with Data Collection
The very first area of your warehouse to automate should be the data collection process.Traditionally, data is collected is through handwritten notes on paper or manually keyed or re-keyed data entry. This data is then stored either digitally on a spreadsheet or a database (such as an AS/400 database), or physically in a folder or convenient location in the warehouse, or not at all.
Where data collection accuracy starts, however, is in receiving.
When a shipment of product arrives in receiving, your employee inspects each box or item on the pallet, writes down or types in the SKUs and quantities, before being stored in bins. Each time receiver enters a SKU number, quantity, or any other type of information, there’s a possibility of human error, such as a transposition of two numbers. That error then compounds as the imperfectly captured data for that material is binned, transferred, picked, packed and then shipped.
2. Gain Control of Your Inventory
Inventory data is only as good as the quality of data you collect. So now that you’ve ensured your data will be collected with maximum quality and accuracy through automation, it’s time to put that data to use in inventory control.
Automating inventory control usually takes the form of an inventory management system (IMS). This software platform provides the ability to gain total visibility into your inventory as it flows through your warehouse. Although there are many IMS solutions out there, software like ShipStation is more tailored to smaller retail and online businesses while enterprise platforms, such as RFgen, are developed specifically with the needs of larger or enterprise companies in mind.
Inventory management software essentially allows the product data captured in receiving to be updated in real-time as inventory transactions take place. For example, the Receiver scans the products in receiving, automatically populating the IMS with data. Then, he hands the pallet off to Putaway in charge, who scans the bin where the stock will be stored. Now the system knows where to find the inventory and how much is on-hand in those particular bins. Later, the inventory can be transferred to a new bin with another set of scans.
When it comes time to pull that inventory for an order, the Picker has an exact count of that stock. The Picker picks the items and quantity and updates the IMS with his handheld scanner. Again, these transactions update the system in real time. The Packer has the right product in the right amount, which is then sent to the customer. Now, the Warehouse Manager can see that the newly pulled items have
caused the level of that stock to fall below the re-order threshold. Because the manager has accurate counts, (s)he doesn’t have to guess or take chances, let alone risk an inconvenient stockout.
IMS software offers numerous additional benefits for daily warehouse work:
Drastically higher inventory accuracy
Store less inventory on-hand, reducing overhead costs
Inventory visibility to maintain optimum stock levels
Faster pick, pack, ship and fulfillment
Automated cycle counts that take hours, not weeks
Easily issue inventory, parts or materials
Inventory software can also be expanded or customized to gain additional functionality:
Capture or track data from other members of the supply chain, such as Global Trade Item Numbers (GTIN) and Country of Origin (COO).
Add Advanced Shipping Notification (ASN) from a supplier or forwarder so your teams know exact quantities of items to expect.
Store and transfer received product without creating unexpected traffic jams or blockages.
Integrate with barcode label software to print new or custom barcodes on-demand from mobile devices.
Add field mobility to extend inventory management into field services for field inventory, consignment inventory, remote warehousing and proof of delivery (DSD).
3. Implement a Warehouse Management System (WMS)
What is a WMS? A warehouse management system, or WMS, is a software platform that takes over and automates internal warehouse logistics to make intelligent, real-time decisions that direct your worker movements through the warehouse with maximum efficiency. Research from ARC Advisory Group indicates that WMS solutions can “provide the single best solution for reducing the cost associated with distribution while simultaneously improving service.”
Like inventory management software, a WMS helps you control and track movement of materials in your warehouse or distribution center, but with far more functionality and operational flexibility. Unlike inventory
control applications, true WMS software provides a higher level of control and resource utilization for product movement and storage in and around your warehouse and DC facilities.
The first WMS were computer applications that provided simple storage and location functions. Since the early days of WMS, these programs have evolved significantly into either standalone applications or as an extension of your Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system that communicates with your database and other warehouse technologies, such as mobile devices, RFID tags and robotics.
Warehouse management software streamlines these time-consuming tasks by directing processes like picking, putaway and replenishment along optimized paths that cut out unnecessary movement and minimize the time it takes to perform each action. Combined with the ability to direct and validate inventory transactions as it flows through the warehouse, WMS solutions have the potential to provide major gains in efficiency, productivity and cost-cutting.