Material Handling Equipment (MHE) has been in use for decades in large, complex distribution environments. These custom systems--along with the customized Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) that drive them--have long been the showpieces of warehousing and distribution.
Once only an option for large warehousing and distribution operations, the commoditization of WMS and MHE during the last decade has reduced the cost of both hardware and software. The result? The integrated WMS/ MHE solution is now an affordable option for a wider range of companies--even those with smaller warehousing and distribution operations.
In these smaller operations, standardized integration of the MHE to the controlling WMS is a key factor in achieving cost reductions and efficiency improvements that de liver a solid return on investment (ROI).
The use of MHE provides improvements in two key areas: efficiency and accuracy. MHE automates warehousing functions and material movements, which results in higher resource utilization, lower cycle time and higher inventory and shipment accuracy. However, MHE implemented in a restricted environment can actually result in a disjointed warehouse with more overall ine˚ciency than without the MHE.
The "lean" concepts pioneered in manufacturing are increasingly spreading to the logistics and distribution area. A lean strategy requires an organization to move away from departmentalized thinking towards holistic thinking--view ing the organization as one entity. Real-time communication between the MHE and the WMS is necessary for organizations that wish to maximize returns on their complex material handling systems.
Integrated, systematic control of the MHE devices will result in a more e˚cient overall system, with improvements including the following:
- Optimized material handling resource levels;
- Minimized work-in-process inventory levels;
- Minimized non-value added travel of material handling resources;
- Identi˛cation of optimal batch/wave sizes.
As outlined, MHE is most e~ective when integrated with a WMS, so that the devices communicate in real-time to optimize the warehouse operations. However, several challenges exist:
- Multiple Vendors: The industry is fragmented and there are many different equipment vendors world wide, most with their own custom protocols for systems integration;
- Multiple Business Flows: MHE can automate a wide range of business processes. Without standard integra tion, this will often result in complex, custom-integration code development;
- Integration Complexity: Integra tion often involves interfacing not only with other systems, but also with low-level components or material handling devices using PLC com mands; and
- Absence of Standards: Each equip ment type and vendor interface is unique. A robust, con˚gurable WMS-MHE integration is essential for successful deployment of WMS in a complex warehouse.
Multiple systems result in subop timal processes with disparate views of inventory and operations. Real-time integration of material handling equipment to the controlling ERP/ WMS is a fundamental building block to improved overall operations.
Unfortunately, the issues (multiple vendors, a lack of messaging stan dards, etc.) often result in having to build customer integration between systems, which increases complexity and cost.
To eliminate the integration layer, companies should consider a vendor with a configurable ma terial handling integration (MHI) layer as part of their solution. This MHI layer will make it possible to connect directly from the WMS to the MHE and enable the company to reduce its total cost of owner ship and benefit from a flexible deployment. Relying on a MHI layer, companies should also expect to achieve more efficient warehouse process with real-time device visibil ity and direction.
As improved communication standards and more robust integration layers become common across the leading ERP/WMS vendors, the need for third party control systems will further diminish. This will result in a greater number of less complex and lower cost options, which will result in increased adoption of integrated, controlled MHE-based distribution systems.