Improve your WMS for a healthier supply chain

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Alex Mills (pictured), Chess Logistics, presents suggestions to boost WMS performance to support improved supply chain performance in the healthcare and pharmaceutical markets.

The healthcare and pharmaceutical industries are already among the most efficient users of supply chain technology. But even the most advanced user in this highly competitive industry would accept that there is still room for improvement in the warehouse. The challenge is to deliver improvements that boost the overall performance of the business.

Modern warehousing is all about real time operational flexibility and added value. Efficient utilisation of space remains important but performance is now measured more by stock turn rates than racking occupancy. Better processes reduce costs by eliminating errors and removing wasteful tasks. The trend has always been to maximising stock availability. Advanced WMS such as Empirica from Chess support rapid throughputs which minimise inventory or capital tied up in the warehouse. Storing more in the same space, handling it more efficiently, improving data accuracy, keeping it for shorter periods and making sure items reach their destination when required are the benchmarks of successful warehouses and supply chains.

Improved picking efficiency is a key objective of any WMS. Voice-based solutions are now established enablers of ultra high picking accuracy and efficiency that promote the better first time pick rates which mean fewer missed orders and returns.  More orders are fulfilled on schedule and less product ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. One Chess customer reduced picking errors by 50 per cent following the introduction of wireless voice controlled order picking, reduced costs, eliminated vast amounts of paper and improved allocation of resources. Halving errors has resulted in improved service to customers because fewer items are lost or delivered erroneously.

Other technologies are available. An industrial products supplier implemented a novel combination of Empirica and automated storage and retrieval systems. Picking is managed by Empirica which interfaces with RF terminals and the storage system to synchronise and direct the movement of items to the picking face. A laser pointer highlights item locations so that staff can identify them quickly. The customer predicts it will improve overall picking productivity and accuracy and reduce resource utilisation by around one third. The underlying principles could be easily applied to picking small cartons such as packs of drugs.

Another enabling technology that is growing in popularity is radio frequency identification (RFID). This offers the prospect of tracking specific items through the supply chain and adding value with processes based on the data storage and interaction capabilities of the tags. RFID is supported by Empirica but it must be understood that the technology is simply an information enabler. How the information is processed is what matters and that comes down to the WMS and wider enterprise systems.

Improved traceability is a major issue in the pharmaceutical and healthcare sectors and one of the benefits that WMS can help introduce into the supply chain. The latest WMS help organisations to match production batches to items picked and delivered to a specific distributor, wholesaler or retailer, with or without RFID. This makes it easier to fulfil regulatory audit trails and - in the proverbial worst caseimplement product recalls because more information will be known about items destinations. Processes based on the existing WMS returns capabilities can be used to track items back into the warehouse and provide real time information on received and missing products that can be matched to their original destination.

Improved links to back office and customer-facing applications place the WMS at the heart of the supply chain and enable new ways of engaging with markets. This means, for example, that customers can exercise real time, web enabled control over their own inventory. One Chess customer does this to monitor the progress of marketing campaigns and allocate unused and returned stock to its overseas businesses for local initiatives.

Current WMS trends are clearly towards greater integration with other applications while at the same time introducing new facilities to support innovation. This includes, but is not limited to, widening the scope of the WMS to support more efficient route planning and vehicle loading to help maximise the performance of the delivery fleet. Another area that has become increasingly important is the use of the WMS to support resource planning and scheduling, for example to balance picking rotas or accommodate flexible working practices.

Placing the WMS at the heart of the supply chain makes its performance critical to the performance of the business. This is why Chess believes a specialist application is superior to the functionality supported by even the best ERP systems. Why settle for a general practitioner when a specialist offers better treatment?


Alex Mills is marketing director for Chess Logistics Technology Limited. The organisation has provided software for logistics and distribution applications for more than twenty years and is recognised as a specialist in its field. The company has an extensive client list of national and international companies.

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