System Integration: A New Understanding

Jan. 21, 2011
You may think your material handling system is integrated, but if you still have automation islands, you still need a bridge.

Many distribution center operations managers believe they have integrated systems because they employ a menu of software packages to manage the various manual, semi-automated or automated systems throughout a facility. This menu can range from simple spreadsheets in a low volume, manual environment to receive, store, pick and ship inventory; to

…EDI-based RF-controlled receiving, put-away, picking and shipping in a conventional rack and fork truck operation; to
…a task-driven, WMS-directed, highly automated distribution operation with disparate software applications for various islands of automation.

None of these are examples of truly integrated systems.

To accomplish efficient and accurate systems integration across a facility with the goal of optimizing operations, today’s high-powered Warehouse Control System (WCS) software applications are required. Such a WCS should be capable of dynamically optimizing and synchronizing the flow of product and data across all functions and islands of automation in the distribution facility. In addition, single point work flow planning and troubleshooting should be enhanced, equipment and labor performance should be maximized and quantitative analytics should provide real time and historical performance metrics.

When this state of operation is achieved, then systems are truly integrated.

How a WCS Eases Integration
Today’s WCS software directs the real-time activities within warehouses and distribution centers and is the operational interface between the WMS and discreet, floor level activities performed by automated material handling systems. The WCS is responsible for keeping everything running smoothly, maximizing the efficiency of the material handling subsystems, and often the activities of the warehouse associates themselves.

It provides a uniform interface to a broad range of electrical control systems and associated material handling equipment such as AS/RS, carousels, conveyor systems, sorters, etc.

The primary functions of today’s WCS include everything from interfacing with a WMS and directing and balancing the executables required to efficiently and accurately move product and people within and between islands of material handling automation, to acting as the data repository and information broker that enables sophisticated operational analytics, including equipment performance measurement, facility throughput characteristics, labor productivity and other key performance metrics.

Many distribution center operations are “stitched” together using multiple discreet software applications generic to various material handling equipment systems, all individually interfacing with a WMS. This fragmented approach, while achievable, is much riskier to synchronize on a daily operational basis, is certainly more difficult and time consuming to troubleshoot, and subsequently exposes operations to efficiency and productivity losses. It doesn’t provide the true systems integration benefits of a single threaded WCS, such as:

Single source planning, operations, troubleshooting, analytics, …
Single source floor level functional operation
Single source maintenance and operations training
“One face” user interface to the floor level operational personnel
Least cost - initial and ongoing
Flexible, scalable, dynamic, simple operational platform
Increased systems uptime and decreased systems downtime associated with disparate systems communication issues.

Case In Point: Crate and Barrel
Crate and Barrel is a fast growing, privately held, specialty retailer of fashionable housewares and home furnishings. In order to accommodate its record growth, Crate and Barrel has been focused on:

-- improving their distribution supply chain to meet corporate growth projections by rearranging and upgrading their existing central distribution center in Naperville, IL;
-- expanding their east coast distribution facility in Cranbury, NJ, and
-- commissioning a new distribution facility in Tracy, CA.

The first phase of their distribution improvement initiative was to reconfigure their picking, packing and shipping delivery systems, including conveyor systems rearrangements and associated warehouse software in their Naperville distribution operation. Their challenge involved seamlessly integrating the new automation systems improvements with their existing legacy WMS.

The old automation systems were operated by a third-party-provided custom warehouse software application that handled basic conveyor operation functions and WMS interfaces, with their WMS assuming control over normal WCS applications such as picking algorithms, lane assignments for diverting to pack stations, and load balancing across multiple automation systems. Increased throughput due to sales growth stressed the old material handling system and its associated software and controls systems, making operations more difficult to accommodate the new business requirements.

When the new automated systems were installed, a new WCS software application (Automation Director by FORTE) was also implemented to centrally control existing and new automation. As a result, Crate and Barrel was able to reduce the dependency on their legacy WMS to provide floor level control over the conveyor systems as well as enjoy the benefits associated with today’s warehouse control system software applications – particularly single point interface and troubleshooting, dynamic operational changes to accommodate throughput variations and extensive data analytics and performance metrics.

According to John Ling, executive vice president, Global Operations and Supply Chain, “Now that our upgraded Naperville distribution operation has been running for over a year, we are operating very efficiently with the tightly integrated equipment and software systems and, on a daily basis, take full advantage of the flexibility and scalability our new warehouse software provides. Based on the success of the Naperville installation, we replicated the warehouse software application when we subsequently expanded our Cranbury distribution facility. The Cranbury distribution fulfillment system delivers a 31% improvement in labor efficiency when compared to the original Naperville operation.”

The Naperville and Cranbury systems integration model proved so successful for Crate and Barrel that they incorporated a very similar warehouse software and systems integration approach for their most recent west coast distribution facility.

On an ongoing basis Crate and Barrel continues to optimize their distribution operations by further reducing processing and handling costs, improving inventory turns, mitigating systems down time risk, synchronizing physical assets (material handling equipment, software, inventory), and reducing reliance on their legacy WMS software platform for warehouse control functions.

Gene Forte is CEO of FORTE, a material handling consulting firm. For more information, visit or contact (800) 796-5566.