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One size does not fit all: Choosing the right technology infrastructure for your DC

Claudio Bratovic, ANZ Regional Manager, Honeywell reveals what solutions a warehouse manager should consider depending on the scale of the site they are running. 

In today’s evolving world of omnichannel fulfillment, the operational requirements of Australian distribution centres (DC’s) are more demanding than ever. Warehouse managers are constantly making changes to ensure their workers are as efficient and productive as possible so that customers receive an accurate and fast delivery.

To enhance DC operations today, many local businesses look to advanced warehouse technologies to optimise key workflows. However, what all warehouse managers need to understand is that not every technology on the market today will automatically work effectively in their unique site – there is no one size fits all approach to choosing and implementing automated solutions into a DC. So, what solutions should a warehouse manager consider for the scale of site they are running?

The small DC

Used as either stand-alone businesses or part of a larger network serving as last-mile delivery facilities, it is understood that small DC’s don’t typically require the most sophisticated warehouse systems and technologies. DC’s of this size can focus on adopting entry-level, yet essential, automation technologies to enhance workflow efficiencies and deliver process improvements.

It can be argued that accuracy is the most important concern in warehouses of all sizes. From receiving to all subsequent downstream workflows, including put-away, picking, shipping and loading, everything depends on the accuracies and efficiencies achieved in the preceding workflow. Today there are a number of solutions that can influence positive outcomes in workflows throughout the small DC. For instance, utilising mobile computers with imagers to scan product and label information, as well as capture additional data, is more productive (~25%) and accurate (~50%) than paper/manual-based methods. It ensures quality control and vendor compliance, and quantity received information is captured in real time.

A growing number of smaller scale DC’s have turned to hands-free computing solutions to streamline operations and improve productivity – such as voice guided solutions. Voice-guided solutions have proven to increase productivity by up to 35% and increase accuracy to 99.99%+ in a variety of tasks throughout the warehouse. For example, in picking processes where workers follow a series of instructions for specific pick locations, products and quantities, these tools provide needed guidance and verification at every step. Voice is available in over 35 languages and has been proven to dramatically reduce training and onboarding time, especially in peak seasons with highly transient workforces.

Automated material-handling solutions help optimise processes, increase efficiency and give small DC’s a competitive edge. Small- and medium-sized DC’s use automated material handling solutions to help increase volumes, support future growth and to help consider future facility layouts (or retrofits of existing facilities) to maximise use of space and ensure logical layouts.

The medium DC

The range of needs for medium-sized DC’s can vary greatly. Within these larger square footage operations, technology can assist in connecting workers, improving visibility to fulfillment activities, and increasing productivity and efficiency.

To maintain DC productivity in a medium sized facility, the tasks of receiving and put-away must be performed with speed and accuracy. Accuracy in this workflow is critical to prevent costly cascading errors downstream and reduce “dock-to-stock” cycle times. Advanced mobile computing solutions feature advanced imaging technologies that capture data quickly on the first scan, thereby increasing speed, accuracy, productivity and visibility over traditional paper-based processes.

With 50–60% of the average DC’s workforce consumed in the picking workflow, productivity gains quickly add up to operational savings, especially in e-commerce DC’s. Order-picking technologies deliver maximum throughput and accuracy in high-velocity, high-SKU environments – with voice-directed solutions providing detailed instructions that guide workers to find specific locations, products and quantities.

Vehicle-mounted computer solutions turn forklifts into information technology platforms. Roughly, 25% of the average DC’s labour is spent on receiving and put-away tasks. Equipping your forklifts with technologies — such as computers, barcode scanners, printers, radio-frequency identification (RFID), voice, lights and software — can reduce material-handling costs, optimise order fulfillment rates, and increase inventory accuracy with real-time tracking.

The large DC

Gartner defines large DC’s as those greater than 250,000 square feet — roughly half the size of a professional football field. For large DC’s, their focus shifts from rudimentary automation to sophisticated, connected technologies aimed at improving and optimising processes, performance and throughput. Simply put, these facilities are engineered to support highly automated operations, from end to end. Competing at this tier requires the tools and technologies to coordinate activities, not only within a singular DC, but also across a network of locations.

From workers, automation systems and robotics to machine-level sensors and control systems, large DC’s have complex operational systems and many overlapping workflows occurring at the same time. In these environments, to drive throughput and performance, DC’s need to have every aspect of their operations connected through an industrial internet of things (IIoT) infrastructure to give companies a holistic view of their business. Through cloud-based, insightful analytics software, DC’s can gather data from key inputs to deliver vital information and trending data on asset health and operational status in real time.

Sortation and conveyor systems are the critical conduits for transporting, directing and routing product flows through busy DC environments. While conveyors are essential for moving product throughout a facility, sortation systems separate products for induction into individual lanes typically associated with an outbound destination. With the rise of e-commerce, sortation and conveyor systems have evolved from simply transporting cases for store replenishment to handling a variety of individual items and packaging types.

As robotic technologies advance, their expanded capabilities enable high-performance solutions for dynamic, unstructured environments such as large-scale DC’s. Today, robotics enable high-performance material-handling and fulfillment capabilities throughout DC operations. These advanced automated order fulfillment systems can improve efficiencies across the complete spectrum of store, move and sort functions; from packet picking and robotic singulation to unloading and depalletising.

Choose the right technologies for your unique operations

Maximising utilisation and consistently maintaining peak performance — now and in the future — are common goals shared by DC operators. Through working with an experienced industry partner and choosing the right technologies for your site, based on the scale of operations you run and unique workflows common to your operations; DC performance will be optimised and customer satisfaction will increase.

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