BY CHRISTIAN DOW, MHI EXECUTIVE VP OF MEMBERSHIP AND INDUSTRY LEADERSHIP
It’s not flashy like the version pioneered by coach Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, but the material handling industry has its own take on the triangle offense, and in a fully optimized warehouse, it can be just as impressive to watch.
When software and control systems are fully integrated with hardware solutions and trained workers, that connectivity makes the system greater than the sum of its parts. The result is a highly efficient warehouse or fulfillment center that uses data to make informed decisions in real time.
That flexibility amid changing operational conditions—including staffing levels, order volume and inventory levels—allows warehouse managers to get the most out of their resources. They may need less material-handling equipment and fewer workers, reducing capital and operational expenditures while still responding to higher order volumes and the demand for faster delivery.
Rather than a triangle, Raymond Cocozza, president of MHI member Conveyco, described it as a three-legged stool. One leg represents software and control systems such as warehouse execution systems (WES) that communicate with other physical and technology solutions. WES software organizes, sequences and directs warehouse resources—both automated equipment and workers—to move goods more efficiently from receiving through shipping.
The second leg is the machinery and equipment such as conveyors, robots, printers, packaging equipment and storage systems that physically interact with the products being moved. The third leg represents workers who interact with physical and technology solutions, performing tasks, responding to directions, managing exceptions and directing the behavior of elements in the solution.
Cocozza said WES software is allowing warehouse managers to gain greater visibility into operations. It can collect operational data, mine it for patterns, report out results, recommend improvements and make decisions in real time using artificial intelligence and machine learning. In addition to reacting to operational conditions as they unfold, WES software provides predictive analytics that can help warehouse managers better prepare for what lies ahead.
“Through smarter software, we can streamline the manner in which we release the flow of orders and group them more intelligently, and we can also more efficiently use our human resources,” Cocozza said. “The software that drives today’s warehouse operations has undergone a huge evolution in terms of its sophistication. It has enabled smarter systems and has empowered operators of these systems to make more-informed decisions.”
High-tech hardware solutions, including automated storage and retrieval systems and autonomous guided vehicles, take their cues from software, but the information sharing goes both ways. Sensors on hardware can alert WES software to potential maintenance issues before equipment breaks down. If a motor is running hot or drawing more amperage than normal, for example, maintenance workers can take corrective action early to eliminate downtime.
“Maintenance professionals aren’t on the floor with three-ring binders anymore,” Cocozza said. “They have access to electronic information more readily so they can more quickly resolve issues. That’s one major opportunity that’s come up in the recent past that’s really empowered facility maintenance groups to make more-informed decisions and to be quicker and more responsive to the operations teams that they support.
“The evolution of technology has been great for efficient designs, but one thing we need to make our customers aware of is that the level of technologists needed to support these systems is much more sophisticated than what was required to run a conveyor system 20 years ago.”