The challenges facing warehouse, distribution, and fulfillment operations since the onset of the pandemic have been well documented. They also don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. With rising wages and labor shortages, conventional operations whose employees (the ones who show up, that is) fill orders manually as they follow paper pick lists are increasingly considering automation.
The material handling equipment suppliers marketing these solutions promise major efficiency and productivity improvements with the same headcount — an appealing argument. But for a conventional facility, the leap into automation is an enormous (not to mention costly) one. That’s why it’s a good idea to engage an independent, unbiased third-party consultant to help assess the current operation before jumping headlong into an automated solution.
The ideal consultant is one who can provide both an operational assessment, as well as collaborate on developing a strategy for both short- and long-term equipment, software, and automation investments. Additionally, it is often most beneficial to engage a consultant who is unaffiliated with a specific brand of software or material handling equipment supplier, and therefore able to propose the optimal solution from a variety of sources.
The first thing a consultant can do to help determine if an investment in automation is the right move for a conventional operation is to perform a process analysis. This involves an examination of the current foundational processes used within the operation to handle inventory, from inbound receiving, to putway, to picking and replenishment, to packing, and finally to outbound shipping. The analysis includes documenting the number of times an item is handled as it passes through each workflow and comparing these results to industry benchmarking standards for best practices in each functional area.
The consultant will also examine how the inventory handling processes are impacted by any inventory or order management software that may be currently in use. Some conventional operations manage inventory through spreadsheets; others may have a warehouse management system (WMS) whose software was written specifically for the operation or purchased off-the-shelf.
Often, if any software is in use, it is typically outdated or limited in functionality. That is, the capabilities of the existing software (and existing processes it directs) have been outpaced by the operation’s changing business requirements. That will prompt the consultant to perform a gap analysis. This evaluation determines whether the current software and processes meet the current business objectives. Quite often, process has evolved to adapt to the software’s limitations, adding handling steps that waste time and add no value.
The result is that, in many cases, a conventional operation considering a move to automation will actually benefit significantly from first investing in new software that can be configured to match a new handling process. To determine how much of a benefit, the consultant can help to quantify the degree of process improvements delivered by a software implementation.
For manual operations, today’s modern software solutions can often deliver anywhere from a 15% to a 25% improvement in productivity and output capability by eliminating unnecessary handling steps. They are also more scalable, enabling them to support an operation as its business needs change and grow. Additionally, adding or updating to a new software system will better position an operation to more quickly implement and better leverage automated equipment moving forward.
The consultant can also help the operation evaluate different software providers. Working together, the operation and consultant can select the software solution can be optimized to best meet both current and anticipated future needs — including any investments in automated equipment.
Looking for more ideas on how to improve your facility’s operational performance? To learn more about working with DCS, connect with us.
Mark Kidwell, Director of Supply Chain Consulting, firstname.lastname@example.org
With over 35 years in the material handling industry, Mark Kidwell provides valuable solutions for our clients regarding operations and process improvement, labor efficiency, DC design, and inventory management consultation.