Warehouse productivity is paramount for sustained market success. Despite best efforts, however, not every operational issue is obvious — and it's these hidden productivity killers that often pose the biggest challenges for completion times and failure rates.

So, how do firms find the missing links? And what happens once they're identified — what tools and tactics do companies need to ensure warehouse operations both meet current expectations and are prepared for ongoing market evolution?

Hide and Seek

According to recent survey data, 95 percent of warehouse companies have taken action in the past 12 months to lower costs within their organization. The challenge? Taking the right action — implementing new processes or changing current policies that directly improve performance.

While some problems are obvious — machinery that's past its prime or difficulty training and retaining staff — others may fly under the radar, costing companies money without an easily-observable cause.

As a result, it's critical for businesses to first solve the problem of hide-and-seek by identifying potential problem areas before rewriting budgets or making big changes. And, although every warehouse firm faces unique challenges in their specific market and vertical, there are three common areas of concern that often go unnoticed:

  • Legacy technologies — These include outdated systems and solutions that weren't designed to handle inter-operational connections or interact with cloud-based supply chain software and other services. While they're "good enough" to get the job done, they often hamper overall warehouse performance.
  • Limited data use — Data now drives actionable decision-making, but many companies don't have immediate access to information that could be used to define and deploy key warehouse strategies. As a result, they're always running behind, trying to solve problems that occurred weeks or months ago rather than proactively preventing or addressing immediate issues.
  • Labor-intensive processes — Manual processes remain the core of many warehouse operations. But, they're not always necessary. In many cases, they introduce the risk of human error if pallet weights and dimensions or product quantities are incorrectly entered and recorded.

What is Warehouse Automation?

As noted by Sustainable Logistics International, the aim of warehouse automation "is to automate repetitive, laborious, dangerous, or time-consuming tasks in the warehouse space, alleviating the issues that commonly arise from these processes." By reducing — or removing — the need for human interaction, companies can both save time and significantly reduce the risk of inventory or operational errors.

While it's possible for organizations to build their own automation framework from the ground up, this is both time-consuming and costly. Instead, many now leverage a warehouse management system (WMS) to both monitor existing processes and maximize performance. The right WMS strikes a balance between form and function — making it easy for administrative staff and floor managers to get the data they need, when they need it, while also identifying, assessing, and responding to productivity issues automatically.

Warehouse Automation Ideas

To deliver on the promise of improved productivity, warehouse automation solutions need to address and ameliorate specific pain points.

Consider the problem of legacy technologies. By replacing outdated, fragmented warehouse automation systems with advanced WMS or warehouse automation software tools, it's possible to gain increased visibility into operations and fully optimize your warehouse. In practice, this means setting default locations for inventory according to the most efficient and lean flow of goods, along with building "zones" for inbound inventory that will help delivery drivers quickly find the correct warehouse loading dock.

When it comes to managing data, meanwhile, it's critical to deploy WMS solutions that combine real-time collection of data with anytime, anywhere access. This could take the form of completion rate management — as orders are confirmed and filled, WMS tools keep track of how long it takes to complete the process end-to-end. Managers and C-suite staff can then access this information from desktops, tablets or mobile devices to discover in real-time how closely current practices align with ideal performance targets, in turn allowing companies to quickly pivot if processes aren't delivering productivity gains.

Finally, intelligent warehouse automation solutions can help reduce the impact of time-consuming manual processes, such as those required to manage pallets. While weighing, measuring, imaging, and assigning pallets to the right system record is critical, it's also laborious, requiring staff to check and double-check measurements, ensure photos have been properly uploaded and tagged and complete the process again if errors are made. By deploying automated pallet and parcel dimensioning connected to their WMS, warehouse companies can reduce the time it takes to process new or outgoing inventory while virtually eliminating the risk of costly errors.

An Automatic Future

Warehouse firms face a dual challenge: cutting costs without compromising quality and service. While more efficient processes and improved staff training can help remedy obvious shortfalls, nearly invisible issues are often the most problematic, costing companies money from lost performance and time spent searching.

By first identifying common concerns — including legacy systems, limited data, and labor-intensive manual processes — that may be hiding in plain sight and applying intelligent warehouse automation at scale, it's possible for companies to eliminate hidden productivity killers and enhance overall performance with a well-executed warehouse automation project.

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