Steve Richmond looks at the role of the Warehouse Management System (WMS) in today’s supply chain and why the supply chain is no longer just about the effective movement of physical goods

As organisations embrace 24×7 warehousing in response to customer led demands for unprecedented levels of immediacy and visibility, intralogistics operations are increasingly taking centre stage. In a bid to drive productivity, increase efficiency, improve accuracy and reduce costs, automation is now a key consideration for many businesses.

Strong foundations
For those planning to implement automation, semi-automation, or indeed optimise their manual processes, one of the most important products to have in place is a robust Warehouse Management System (WMS). Why? Because businesses need to be able to manage existing core logistics processes, along with future proofing business software platforms so that as the company expands, it can respond to change and add automation such as Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), other types of automation or more complex customer-driven picking strategies.

Additionally, recent innovations within the warehouse have seen an increased demand for voice technology and wearable devices. To ensure that businesses are able to introduce the latest technology they must be able to expand the capabilities of their legacy WMS.

The initial design and specification of the WMS will determine how flexible a facility will be going forward. For example, if you currently operate a manual warehouse and employ conventional order picking technology, could your WMS adapt if you were suddenly faced with an upsurge of online orders, which brought about a dramatic shift in your typical order profile, such as during peak sales periods like Black Friday or Christmas?

Order processing profiles and picking requirements may change significantly. For example, a facility may suddenly be required to shift from a bulk or unit load-based operation by a customer-driven need to fulfil single item picks at a much higher frequency. But what if the WMS couldn’t accommodate this change?

Within a temperature controlled facility, the job of the WMS is, arguably, even more crucial. If, for instance, personnel time within the storage unit is restricted because of the temperature, it is doubly important to make sure workers are as productive as possible. And, with many temperature controlled sites using multi-depth storage systems, it is essential to choose a WMS that has the functionality to recognise and support such methods.

Data – unlocking value
If data is the key to both supply chain efficiency and business innovation, how can companies achieve the value of this essential asset? While technologies such as AI and blockchain can enable extraordinary change, companies need to determine how best to create the underlying logistics environment that both harnesses and leverages accurate data resources.

The value of data is increasingly recognised, with UK firms rapidly embracing the vision of automation and the creation of the smart, connected warehouse. According to Automation in Intralogistics research undertaken by Sapio Research, on behalf of Jungheinrich, within two years, the majority of organisations plan to have automated at least 50 per cent of supply chain operations.

This shift towards semi- and full-automation is providing an opportunity for organisations to maximise their data assets. With the end-to-end supply chain becoming more complex, it is often difficult to establish where the boundaries lie, and as business models evolve, companies are looking to leverage data not only to transform process and product flow throughout the supply chain but also sharing that process visibility with partners, suppliers and customers to enhance relationships. As the data becomes more accurate, more real-time and more available, companies will increasingly look to monetise the data flow alongside, even instead of, the product flow.

The move from focusing on the efficient, effective flow of products through the supply chain to actively harnessing and exploring the value of the associated data asset is challenging both operationally and culturally. Intelligent intralogistics is opening up new business opportunities but how can companies successfully grow to embrace automation and achieve a smart, connected operation?

From understanding the business processes of today and the future vision, to supporting the entire automation lifecycle and making the case for each stage of the automation journey, a partner, rather than a supplier is vital. According to the research, well over half (55 per cent) of respondents say that advances in technology have, to a great or very great extent, driven change within intralogistics over the past five years. Also, that technology led change will accelerate. As companies embrace automation through robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT) a myriad of new data resources will provide an exciting platform for AI, enhanced forecasting and anticipatory logistics.

With the speed of change not only in customer expectations and attitudes but global, intelligence enabled opportunities, organisations will have to embrace a constantly evolving business model. AI and blockchain are exciting enablers of new business models, but it is the depth, accuracy and timeliness of trusted data resources that will be at the heart of successful intralogistics operations in the future.

It is foreseen that the next few years will be challenging for companies globally; but those that embrace a strong automation foundation will be better placed to adopt innovative technologies, be able to respond quickly to change and fundamentally, improve both efficiency and productivity.

In addition, it will be important for companies to remember that collaboration is the key to successful automation. Bringing people, technology and processes together should always be at the core of every automation project.