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Back to Basics: Inventory Handling and Tracking Technologies

Feb. 12, 2013
The right mix of technologies can help with the layout of a warehouse as well as the efficient flow of its people and products.

Inefficient or poorly-managed logistics operations increase overhead and reduce customer satisfaction, posing a significant threat to a manufacturer's profitability.

Technologies can lend an almost scientific approach to logistics operations planning. With that in mind, let's look at just one area in which technology is making an impact—inventory tracking and handling.

The Fully Automated Warehouse

Full warehouse automation is the most comprehensive example of technology use in retail warehouses. The biggest manufacturers can find that success creates its own particular challenge when it comes to order fulfilment—a gigantic customer base, demanding swift delivery of a huge range of products, to innumerable locations ranging from retail stores to the very homes of the consumers themselves.

To create the operational fluidity necessary to satisfy their millions of customers, leading companies will often invest heavily in completely automating their warehouse facilities. Such facilities tend to have a completely integrated system where specialized warehouse management software interacts with specially designed automated racks, cranes, and stackers to ensure that inbound items are loaded, and outbound items located, retrieved and passed along a network of conveyor belts to the appropriate loading bay—with high accuracy rates.  

IKEA, Walmart and Zappos are just some of the retail giants that currently employ these advanced systems as an integral part of their low cost/large scale operations.

Warehouse Management Systems

The previous examples symbolize the most sophisticated level of WMS deployment. However, even if the requirement for such advanced systems is lacking, WMS still has a critical part to play in the daily running of a warehouse.

In a more standard setting, this software acts as a data repository that provides management with the real time information needed to manage daily activities. Using WMS, managers can optimize the movement of inventory—from loading and unloading, to storage and retrieval. In addition, it enables them to manage the resources associated with inventory handling, such as employees, cranes, trucks and loading bays.

Solutions range from open source software aimed at very small businesses, through highly sophisticated systems used in warehouses by major retailers such as Nike, whose European distribution center handles more than 43 million items annually. Given the scale of many global retailers, a top-end WMS must be adept at handling and analyzing incredible amounts of data to allow them to account for the location and movement of each and every individual product on the premises.

Voice Activated Picking

Voice leverages the interaction between RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Devices) and WMS and is a relatively recent development in material handling.

Historically, retrieving inventory from racks for outbound transportation was a time-consuming manual practice in which staff worked from paper lists. As such, inventory picking was one of the main areas susceptible to human error and a significant drain on resources.

Voice activated picking solutions employ speech recognition technology and interface with the WMS using the data emitted by RFID tags (attached to inventory at pallet or individual product level). These systems guide staff, via a mobile device, to the exact storage location of the desired goods. Employees interact with the software, using a headset and microphone, to specify that the goods have been picked. This information is conveyed back to the WMS, which then directs the worker to the next location.  The systems also aid with truck loading, ensuring that pallets are picked in the correct sequence and that all items are loaded onto the vehicle before its departure.

The benefits of these technologies include increased picking accuracy, staff productivity, reduced training time and, of course, greater customer satisfaction.

Rory Christian is a consultant with Cambashi, an industry analyst and consulting firm.