Surviving or Thriving? It starts with your first form of Automation, Warehouse Management
As anyone who’s experienced change in supply chain technology over the past five-to-ten years can attest, we’ve come a long way, baby.
Artificial intelligence, neural networks, machine learning, robotics, mobile apps, big data, the cloud and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). All have reshaped the way goods travel from dock to doorstep, especially in today’s hyperactive, direct-to-consumer, e-commerce environment. Since 2020 alone, changing customer demands, port delays, labor shortages, supply shortages and evolving government regulation have all contributed to the industry’s technology arms race, causing many hesitant players to jump on the technology bandwagon – in a hurry.
But the truth is, jacking up your technology stack simply because everyone else seems to be doing it may not be the smartest way forward. Sometimes, it’s best to crawl before you walk or run. And always by testing and simulating what you have in mind first. Let’s look at some options.
Where’s your best starting point?
Warehouse management software (WMS) is the foundation of a smooth-running supply chain operation. An up-to-date WMS will capture, control and disperse your information, and provide the necessary instruction that modern, automated systems need to work effectively. Robots can only do what they’re told, whether they’re bolted to the ground, traversing the warehouse floor or simply crunching numbers. So, the question becomes where does your software reside and how do you manage it?
On-premise is often considered old school, but it does have its advantages. You control the asset directly, which makes managing the system easier, especially if you have lots of customization in your software; no one knows your system better than you do. Of course, you will need a team of dedicated IT specialists to keep the system running. This can get expensive, not to mention inconvenient, if something goes wrong while your key IT tech is on vacation or out with the flu. You’re also responsible for upgrades, integrations and disaster recovery. So, if you’re not up for all of that, as well as the cost that comes with it, try the next best option.
Cloud-based WMS stands as a viable alternative. This requires transferring your hardware infrastructure to a cloud hosting vendor who maintains the infrastructure for you. The software is still under your control. But the machines themselves are covered by a monthly service contract, backed by guaranteed Service License Agreements (SLAs). If disaster strikes, the built-in redundancy of the cloud keeps you clear of extended downtime. You’ll still need IT staff to maintain your software. But if you need to scale up quickly, expanding is usually as simple as calling your vendor to spin up a few new servers.
SaaS, Software-As-A-Service, is the third and, perhaps, easiest option. SaaS gets you out of the hardware and software business altogether because it runs in the cloud. Your provider now becomes responsible for all system hardware and software maintenance, with guaranteed SLAs to back you up. You can scale on demand. You can rest assured you’re running the most up-to-date software available. And, your stressed-out IT department can now relax and focus on core business issues, because your provider oversees new releases, system maintenance and upkeep. You simply need to be willing to run a more standardized version of software.
To decide which is best for you, take a close look at your business model and determine what option – or combination of options – best accommodates your operating strategy, technology stack and budget. On-premise is usually best for heavily customized operations backed by the wherewithal to carry the overhead. SaaS, however, will only accommodate a standardized program, but the cost-efficiency and thin staff profile make up the difference.
So, how does automation fit in?
When it comes to supply chain automation, “cool technology” comes to mind. Internet of Things, robotics, sensor networks, augmented reality. None of the “good stuff” will work without a modern WMS in place to inform and control it. So, in a sense, a modern WMS is your first advanced automation investment.
From there, proceed slowly and cautiously down the automation highway. Consider carefully what you want to automate and determine whether a simple process correction won’t improve the output before you invest.
Generally, automation, especially robots, make the greatest difference wherever human travel can be reduced, safety is a concern, or repetitious tasks and rote calculations are required. If you spot an opportunity like this, resist going all in. Remember the “one robot to one human” correlation. Talk to your people to get their input and buy-in first. Explain what you’re trying to accomplish and then make sure your WMS can communicate with the necessary automation equipment before you rent or buy “only one unit” to start.
Monitor and measure what happens. If the equipment harmonizes with your people and system, you may be onto something bigger. Try a second unit and so on. This is called testing and simulating, and it is a non-negotiable when you get into the automation phase of your journey.
Of course, if you’re working with a legacy WMS that has served its time, you may not be able to automate at all. In which case, your best move is to upgrade that old WMS.
SaaS and automation make a perfect match
Automation and SaaS work well together because they have one thing in common: standardization. Automation is all about performing routine work quickly and efficiently in the same way repeatedly. SaaS is all about democratizing a program so everyone and everything can work together smoothly, simply and seamlessly.
For example, you can quickly and easily configure an automatic guided vehicle (AGV) on your SaaS platform using standard integrations, then command the device to cycle along a specific course in your warehouse faithfully without complex programming. The connection is direct, and any course changes are simplified because both technologies are built to common standards.
What’s more, your SaaS support team is trained on the platform to know exactly what to do. This collapses response times when adding new devices or changing command prompts during periods of extreme volatility. With SaaS, automation support is simplified.
The difference between surviving and thriving
As modern circumstances continue to reshape supply chain expectations daily, forward-looking operators are turning to system modernization and automation to stay one step ahead. Ask yourself:
Take your business to the next level with a fresh assessment of your existing software and state of automation. And start applying the latest technology to:
Meet changing customer demands
Provide a better user and customer experience
Streamline order processing
Improve employee satisfaction and safety
Speed customer and employee onboarding
Reduce IT stress
And stay current
Jeremy Hudson is Director of Client Services at Open Sky Group. As a Director at Open Sky Group, Jeremy’s focus is the products and services clients need to stay competitive and flexible in the ever changing, disruptive business environment that is the world of supply chain. Open Sky Group’s mission is to deliver technology-enabled solutions that allow our customers to achieve more, often with less, while having the flexibility to adapt to change. Our mission and core values are the foundation of our culture and guiding source in our interactions. Jeremy lives the core values and mission each day by bringing the best experience possible to our clients. Not only does he provide internal support to our Sales and Marketing team through software demonstrations, presentations and industry interviews, he is an essential member of implementation teams, working alongside our clients, encouraging them to use innovation and best practices instead of customizations for their long-term success.