Industry Insights

Streamlining Warehouse Operations through Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) & Radio Frequency Technology

February 2010

“That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

“John Doe is the only one who knows how to do that, and he’s not here.”

These are common phrases in both manufacturing and distribution warehouses today. Complacency may set in, and improvements to warehouse operations can come to a screeching halt. Step outside the box and take a look at improving operations and streamlining functions through implementing an advanced warehouse management system (WMS).

Today’s new technologies allow many options in how advanced or high-tech a system can be. Systems can be designed to create simple picking routes, which determine the best sequence for picking items in the warehouse for groups of customers or sales orders. The more advanced Wave Control Systems (WCS) can be used to automatically determine how a truck route should be picked where entire routes generate waves. Waves are created through predetermined criteria, such as grouping items on a truck for bulk picking, grouping customers for ease in delivery, identifying picks in reverse-stop sequence for ease in loading and other configurative options. Using a wave system benefits a company by reducing manual processing, minimizing travel time in the warehouse, reducing risk of overloading a truck, enforcing preplanning of pallet size prior to truck loading, allowing multiple-order pickers to pick pallets for the same truck, as well as helping to reduce many other common warehouse issues. Many systems allow for growth, so systems can adapt to ever-changing business needs.

The benefits of implementing a WMS are great; some examples include:

  • Identifying high-turn items and relocating them in the warehouse to a high-traffic area for picking (this is called a fast-moving zone) can reduce labor hours
  • Wave control for using the best picking route through the warehouse, which also reduces travel time from location A to location B and therefore reduces overall picking time
  • Minimizing travel time also reduces wear and tear on equipment
  • Inventory controls and cycle count accuracy can reduce back orders
  • Streamlining operations and using a single method for processes allows for improved cross-training and training of new employees
  • This also minimizes downtime when someone is sick or turnover happens
  • Improved reporting and accurate Metrics to support ISO and Six Sigma compliance

A WMS can improve warehouse functions, reduce costs and allow for growth regardless of the size of the warehouse operations. Taking the time to implement a new advanced warehouse management system will give a company the platform for growth in warehouse operations while reducing costs.

Using Radio Frequency (RF) Technology

RF technology has continued to grow in popularity and may be integrated with a WMS. Barcodes can be found on most of today’s products, and software to generate barcodes is readily available.

Inventory controls can be strengthened by implementing RF technology with WMS. Bar coding and scanning can improve accuracy in a warehouse. Without such a system, items may be hard to identify or slotted in the wrong location. Mix-ups can easily happen when the same item is stocked in multiple units of measure.

Using barcodes on items and locations in a warehouse can reduce mis-picks, errors related to receiving, stocking and cycle counting. Warehouse employee turnover is typically high. RF technology can validate the correct product is moving through the warehouse. The employee doesn’t have to know the item identification to make sure it’s the right product; additional employees who are checkers won’t need to validate or spot-check pallets to try to determine accuracy. Waves or picking routes may be sent directly to an RF device, reducing paperwork printing and handling. Managers can see real-time inventory during picking or stocking, as well as cycle count adjustments or breakage. This should improve accuracy on sales orders by reducing item reservation issues. Check digit and other validations can be configured to barcodes. They are not human-readable, forcing users to scan and not manually enter items or locations.

Varying types of RF scanners exist. A company can determine its best fit by business needs, or it can mix and match RF equipment. The most popular RF scanners are the handheld version, where the scanner, screen and keypad are part of a single handheld device. These typically have rechargeable batteries. Handheld devices are not limited to a specific area or function. Truck-mounted RF scanners also may be used, where a larger screen with a keypad is mounted on warehouse equipment such as a forklift. You may be able to hardwire these scanners to the battery of the forklift or other equipment. Truck mounting minimizes damage to the RF unit. Finger scanners are available, where a clip attaches to the end of a finger to simply point and scan. Voice system technology is growing in popularity; the employee wears a headset with a microphone and is directed through the warehouse with a voice-guided system. Voice technology is a safer option, since employees have both hands free while operating warehouse equipment. Implementing RF technology along with a warehouse management system can benefit a business by:

  • Ensuring correct items are being shipped
  • Reducing costs associated with pickups, returns, restocking and reshipping (these costs are usually at the company’s expense)
  • Reducing loss on items over-shipped or mis-picked
  • Minimizing items lost in the warehouse
  • Minimizing stocking errors through location scanning validation
  • Streamlining processes so a single method is used for various warehouse functions
  • Assisting in physical inventories and cycle counting
  • Reducing training time for new employees and support cross-training

RF technology, along with a new warehouse management system, can streamline processes, reduce costs and help businesses build the infrastructure for growth.

For more information on this issue or related matters, please consult your BKD advisor.