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Overcoming misgivings

14 January 2015

Handling & Storage Solutions speaks to key IT vendors about the attractions (and the fears) surrounding using WMS and voice solutions to improve warehouse picking performance.

There is no doubt that using WMS and warehouse IT can boost the productivity of picking in the warehouse, sometimes to a great extent. And yet the warehouse workforce is often apprehensive about new technology and particularly large scale installations.

Part of this is down to resistance to change but there is more at work. Management is often concerned that the installation process will be hampered by glitches or fail to deliver on promised return on investment.

Also, warehouse employees fear they may have to adapt to a less enjoyable work process, or that their job may be lost altogether.

Perhaps it does not help that the media and online forums are only a-buzz when things go wrong. Handling & Storage Solutions speaks to WMS vendors to get their take on these difficult issues.

It has been said that ‘no software package works first time’. What does it say about the process of implementing a complex IT system?

Gavin Clark, commercial director for Snapfulfil: All software requires testing, both by the provider and the new prospective users. With sufficient UAT (User Acceptance Testing) and detailed test plans, there should be no reason why the software package wouldn’t work first time when ‘live’.

As live usage can often be difficult to predict, it’s a good idea to select a vendor that provides flexible rule and configuration options once the system is live. Many software packages can be like pouring concrete and the flexibility ends at go live! Make sure you choose one that provides free changes during live operation to limit the risks.

The first thing to do is write down what your operation does right now. From the moment that goods are ordered to the moment the parcel/pallet leaves the building, document what you do and who does it.

This will give a working document to use and will help you to ensure that any culture change driven by the new systems will have a good and demonstrable reason. This is key in making sure everyone works towards the common goal.

Also choose a WMS partner that shares the risk (i.e. via a SaaS deployment method) and reward for ROI generation, rather than the traditional model where the vendor takes no risk at all and in many cases receives all of their money in advance from a leasing company, regardless of ROI or implementation success.

Isabel McCabe, managing director of Voiteq: It is true not everything always goes right the first time; however, seek out a supplier with a strong track record and ensure that you have the right teams and processes in place to minimise risk.

At times businesses can over-engineer warehouse solutions and make a project too complicated. Your vendor should integrate into your IT team as though they are a member.

Setting KPIs and realistic expectations with senior management will ensure executive backing and focus on what the project should deliver from day one.

Linda Rodway, market development manager, Proteus Software: I disagree. We have had implementations where the software has worked straight off. However we test the system thoroughly and extensively before the client goes live with the new system. We always have a project champion who we guide and train thoroughly on the system before go live.

Chris Pass, sales consultant, BCP: I strongly disagree. If you choose a proven package from a reputable, experienced provider who understands your requirements and project manages the implementation correctly there is no reason why the system shouldn’t work first time. Problems can arise where ways of working are being changed and buy-in from those involved is inadequate, but a good supplier will work in partnership with the customer, encouraging the involvement of representatives from all areas which will be affected by the new system – from top to bottom of the hierarchy – right from the start of the project.  

Adequate training is also important. There can be a tendency to skimp on training. This can be fatal. Training ‘super-users’ who cascade their knowledge down to lower levels can be a good way of getting buy-in.

What kind of impact can voice-directed picking have on warehouse productivity?

Chris Pass: In picking terms, RF handhelds have benefits but limit freedom of the picker’s hands, slowing them down.

For small fast moving items, Pick to Light can provide significant productivity advantages because the picker can see simultaneously all the items to be picked, rather than being given sequential instructions. But it is also inflexible in terms of interacting with the WMS to manage anomalies.

Voice is the best as the user can assess and interpret the situation at the picking location and report back so that rapid corrective action can be taken if necessary.

Our product, Accord Voice, typically improves productivity over manual/paper based picking by 10-20%, but results can be exceptional. For example, BCP customer Gordon & MacPhail, the whisky specialist, acheived a 50% increase in the number of cases picked per person and a 43% increase in the number of lines per person.

It also makes it easier for employees to undertake their work, especially in frozen foods.

Isabel McCabe: We have found that beyond the benefits of accuracy and productivity; our customers are seeing better staff retention, vastly improved customer service, shorter training times, reduced equipment failures, more efficient processes such as pick and pack, as well as fewer returns. The solution also makes for a much safer and tidier place to work.

Is there a danger WMS or voice-directed picking can be over-sold, leading end users to over-zealously cut employee numbers?

Gavin Clark: We have seen evidence that many ROI claims have been "over-sold” but the results are rarely an over reduction in employee numbers.

With a solid WMS implementation, the time to reassign warehouse operatives to other areas will become evident through the Operator Performance and Utilisation monitoring that virtually all WMS systems provide.

Isabel McCabe: We have found that customers don’t always cut employee numbers, they may redeploy workers elsewhere or support additional growth without growing headcount. We find that they can get the job done accurately and on-time, which is the case with our client Holland & Barrett, who reduced the amount of agency labour they needed.

Chris Pass: Our experience shows that rather than cut staff, businesses redeploy them to more productive operations.

More often than not, companies who invest in Voice Picking are growing and planning for future growth and the improved efficiencies allow them to manage that growth/fulfil ambitions with the same number of staff rather than having to take on more staff.

For example, BCP customer CJ Lang realised administration and stationery savings equating to a reduction of 5 man-days’ effort per week in warehouse management administration, allowing the company to re-deploy administrative staff to more productive areas of the business.

What is most important benefit of warehouse IT?

Linda Rodway: Visibility. With a paper-based system, operatives are following instructions from a piece of paper, and updating the computer system when the assigned task has been finished. This is open to human error, and can result in mis-picks.

A WMS controls and manages all the of the stock movements within the warehouse from the moment stock arrives, and records all movements through putaway, picking and despatch. You have an accurate picture that is easy to reference. 

What is the threshold of picks per hour that a company must meet before it’s advisable they switch to picking powered by WMS?

Gavin Clark: Picks or lines per hour can be difficult to capture accurately without a scanning system already in place, so a more common metric would be the number of orders or order lines per day, or number of warehouse operatives. The number of orders/lines will also vary depending on the number of SKUs.

For example, 200 orders per day, with only 1-2 lines per order across a range of products that are less than 100 would only require a small warehouse. Therefore two people picking 200 lines in an eight hour day with very little walking would easily accommodate 25 lines per hour across an 8 hour day.

However, the same number of orders across 10,000 SKU lines, or with other picking complications like JIT orders or cross docking would require more personnel and possibly a WMS could deliver significant advantages.

In our experience if you have more than four to five people within your warehouse, the returns on investment for a WMS begin to add up.