Technology has changed the way the supply chain, and in particular how the humble warehouse works forever. Visibility is king – knowing what inventory you have and where it is with close to 100% accuracy is the goal of most organisations around the globe. Never before have we had so many choices to improve efficiency – from the humble barcode scanner to voice picking, pick to light, AMR goods-to-person systems to name a few. Most are costly, have long project timelines and require extensive integration into existing systems – worth doing in many cases but long term projects.
Talking to supply chain people and visiting the sites of many warehouses over the last 13 years with Gamma Solutions and the Supply Chain & Logistics Association of Australia it has become apparent that there is much low hanging fruit that is left to rot on the tree. Easy wins that can dramatically increase efficiency with low cost, short deployment times and exceptionally quick ROI. Here are my top 5.
Wearable computer and scanners
Wearable technology has been around for many years but still very much underutilised. In a warehouse scenario the computer sits to the warehouse workers arm and the scanner fits on the finger and activated by the thumb. This allows a worker to use both hands for the picking process rather than one. If your workers can work more efficiently and more quickly with two hands rather than one, then this technology should be considered. Think picking two bottles of wine into a shipping box rather than one. Think moving big, ugly inventory items with two hands without the need to go back and pickup the scanner for the pick.
Voice enable your WMS menus
While full voice systems can completely transform your warehouse workflow they are expensive, require lots of integration to backend systems and have long deployment time frames. If voice makes sense in some areas of your warehouse but not necessarily all, you should consider voice enabling the menus and screens on your existing Warehouse Management System (WMS). This enables you to cherry pick the area that can best take advantage of voice – typically picking – while maintaining your existing WMS. Voice systems, will free both your workers hands for increased efficiency and quicker picking. Because your workers no longer need to look at a screen or use a computer keypad their visual processing is focused on picking the goods, leading to better accuracy. When you observe an experienced picker using voice you will notice that they interact with the computer while walking to the next pick which also saves time. Safety benefits are there too with workers no longer focused on a screen but aware of the forklifts and other traffic around them. Looking at a screen in a warehouse is similar to crossing a road while on your phone – dangerous. Voice enablement requires no back-end changes and consists of an App running on the scanning device – this means low cost and quick deployment.
Mobile printers are one of the lowest cost ways to gain some big efficiency gains in the warehouse. There are two benefits. Rather than the workers going to a static desktop printer to get their labels, the label comes to the worker on a mobile printer usually attached via a belt clip or mounted to a picking cart or order picker – saving travel time. There is also an increase in accuracy as the system is print on demand it removes the chance of an incorrect label being applied. The printers are low cost and connect to the WMS via the existing WIFI used by the scanners.
Lollipop style scanners
This is simply a choice in scanner type and while there is a slight price premium to this vertical orientation scanner the benefits are significant. With a regular gun style scanner you will see workers pointing down to scan and then lifting up to read the screen and enter quantity data. The Lollipop style scanner (my terminology) has the scanner on the same plane as the screen, removing the need to tilt and scan. Studies have shown that on average this style of scanner has a 14% efficiency saving over regular gun style scanners.
Printer barcode verifiers
Label printers are key technology in the warehouse and clear print and scannable barcodes are an essential requirement. Imagine printing 1000 product labels for stock and only to find that the barcode isn’t scannable. Not to mention that most major retailers will refuse a pallet of product if the barcodes are not scannable and will follow up with a significant penalty notice. Non scannable barcodes unfortunately are commonplace as incorrectly installed ribbons, dirt and dust build-up on the print head, label adhesive becoming stuck in the print mechanism, or a worn print head can all cause labels to be printed that are not scannable. Surprising then that barcode verifiers are not more popular – maybe due to lack of awareness. The concept is simple – the verifier option when fitted to a label printer will scan every barcode as it is printed confirming that it can be read and if not alert the operator. Simple but effective in eliminating unscannable barcodes.
With pandemic related stock shortages around the globe, the spotlight is on supply chain and companies like no time before are investing in technology to understand where their inventory is – from raw materials to finished product being delivered to their customers door, visibility is key. Regardless of where you are at in your supply chain digital journey don’t forget the low hanging fruit that may be sitting right in front of you.
Stephen Lakey is a Supply Chain technology consultant at Gamma Solutions. If you would like to discuss any of these technologies or increasing the efficiency of your warehouse you can contact him on email@example.com or connect on LinkedIn