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Warehouse Digitalisation: The Future of Warehouse Management

By Richard Wilson, Inbound Logistics Director, Arla Foods

Richard Wilson is the Director Of Logistics in Arla Foods with a demonstrated history of working in the dairy industry. Richard's professional expertise lies within the sphere of Operations Management, Quality Management, Strategic Sourcing, Warehouse Operations, and Account Management. Ricahrd has worked extensively within a farmer cooperative with an excellent understanding of the cooperative model including trading and farmer relationships.

How is technology playing a pivotal role in today’s warehouse management?

Warehouse management requires the frequent evaluation of external and internal factors, along with excellent planning and review combined with high levels of competency. The traditional paper-based approach in managing a warehouse can be a significant challenge, even for the most experienced warehouse managers, finance managers, and inventory personnel. Maintaining control of major expenses such as asset and warehouse maintenance, transportation, freight services, while controlling inventory levels is challenging. Innovative warehouse technology solutions, in my experience, are helping warehouse managers maximise order picking productivity, boost accuracy, reduce costs, improve efficiency, and streamline supply chain operations.

At Arla Foods, we have introduced new technological solutions in two main areas: Direct to store warehousing operations (DSD), as well as direct to customer distribution centre operations (RDC).

In our RDC operations, we work with warehouse management systems that are instrumental in improving accuracy and efficiency, controlling stocks, as well as enhancing productivity. In our DSD operations, we have also introduced voice picking systems and automated guided vehicles (AGVs). Order picking is a crucial aspect of the distribution process, and today, the use of voice picking systems is enhancing this whole operation by providing improved benefits in terms of productivity, accuracy, and workforce advantages. Voice picking is a paperless order picking solution designed to keep an operator's hand and eyes free, allowing them to focus more on the task at hand. Easy-to-understand voice prompts direct operators to locations and instructs them as to what task needs to be performed. Multi-modal feedback via an operator's voice, a barcode scan, or direct text entry provides additional operational flexibility. AGVs help to replace manual tasks and improve safety of the staff in the warehouse with the sensors on the AGVs slowing it or stopping as it senses its proximity to objects or people.

What, according to you, are some of the predominant challenges the logistics industry faces when implementing new systems and what are the best practices companies should deploy to mitigate them?

One challenge to consider is a lack of expertise in implementing new systems and processes within the warehousing marketplace. When implementing new systems and processes, warehouse managers and the associated staff would have minimal idea of what the new warehouse management technologies are, and consequently they lack the knowledge needed to implement these systems efficiently. It is critical for them to understand what products they are managing. For example, while integrating a voice picking technology, it is imperative to ensure that the system can recognise the different accents and dialects. Hence, understanding how to utilise the technology effectively is critical.

Another challenge relates to managing organisational changes smoothly. An effective change management plan needs to be considered and developed. Warehouse managers should come up with the best strategies to engage their teams during these changes. The benefits of fully engaging the workforce in this change will pay dividends during and post implementation.

Could you elaborate on the critical aspects that warehouse managers have to keep in mind while selecting a warehouse management system?

One of the key areas that I would consider is to check the reliability of the system. When an operation is fully reliant on a warehouse management system, regular unplanned downtime can be a major problem, especially if there is no clear backup process in place, which can lead to zero productivity. Consequently a system that can provide an extremely high level of uptime availability is essential. Moreover, with DSD becoming more and more relevant, warehouse management systems that can operate alongside different distribution channels will be an advantage for businesses. Furthermore, the system should provide complete visibility and transparency into the workflow and information because this would allow companies to build trust, drive improvements, and react faster and more effectively if and when problems occur.

What is the prime piece of advice you would like to impart to entrepreneurs and other professionals who look to embark on the warehouse management journey?

If you are looking to implement a warehouse management system, my advice would be to set a clear objective, with a comprehensive scope document highlighting what is expected to be included, and what is expected as being excluded. In order to create this you will need to spend a lot of time understanding your business needs, and the key objectives that you want to achieve from implementing a warehouse management system. When you engage with a potential vendor, be clear and precise so that they understand fully what you are looking to gain from the warehouse management solution. I would advise that you make a comparison of the systems from different vendors. A ranked league table system covering a number of important elements of the project scope is a good idea to develop a shortlist. Using the shortlist to make a more forensic review of the final selection of vendors, you should be able to identify which vendor best fits your business needs. Once the decision is made, make sure the agreement is clear to both parties so that both sides understand their respective roles and responsibilities, to enable an effective project process that includes high levels of engagement of the team, not just at the management level.

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