The next evolution in wireless mobile computing in supply chain execution

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The globalisation of markets and supply chains puts mounting pressures on warehousing and distribution operations.

These pressures come from increasing demands for greater efficiencies and increased accuracy. Global competition creates demands for more with less; better supply chain execution with leaner operations. Customers have increasing demands and expectations for perfect orders, custom orders, on time delivery, all the time. Systems are just not keeping up with the markets demands for flawless execution and shorter lead times.

So where do we look to achieve such improvements over what we have today? Real time wireless networks, barcode data capture and re-engineered best practices have already made huge improvements over the batch, paper based systems of yesteryear. What more could we possibly expect?

Consider that the value (and profits) of warehousing and distribution operations are made from moving things: material, inventory and such. So, in and out, as well as within warehouses, things are moved, whether by hand or forklift. So more movement within a span of time means more profit. But generally, such movements require directions for the laborers on what to move and where, as well as some validation (data capture) to confirm correct movement and record the movement. The time spent on these directions and validations, however, steal precious time for more movement, which is the primary objective and reason for paying such labor. Hold that thought

Now, for a moment, think about driving. Think about driving in a foreign country. Strange language; unintelligible road signs. The primary objective: to get from A to B (quickly but safely). Ten or more years ago, this meant trying to make sense of a map and correlate that to the signs and hope you both understood it right and made the correct turns. Put the map on the passenger seat. Wheres the entrance to the motorway? Glance at the map. Glance at the road. Miss the turn? Circle back. On the motorway. Is that my turn coming up? Glance at the map. I cant read it! Mind the lane markers and the oncoming lorry! Bugger! Missed the turn, or did I? If you survived the trip, it took two hours instead of the one it should have.

Now think about that same drive today. You have a GPS system and a voice that speaks directions (and maybe even in your own language)! Exit the lot and turn right. In 200 yards, turn left into the motorway entrance. Continue for 45 miles. (You manage this simply enough.) In 500 yards take the first motorway exit to the right. (You miss the first and take the second just after it.) Off course. Make left turn in 100 yards. Etc. Now that one hour drive takes one hour (save the minor error, quickly corrected).

Whats happened here? In both cases, direction, movement and validation were the process. But in the second case, with the right technology assist, the driver was nearly 100% on the primary objective and NOT distracted with digesting directions and confirming correct action. These were addressed with voice providing intuitive, non-distractive direction and GPS providing automatic validation. Neither of these took time away from movement.

What does this have to do with warehousing operations? Quite the same. New combinations of technologies are emerging that will enable significant increases in warehouse worker productivity and accuracy. And At LXE, we have devised a framework called ARIA (Adaptive Recognition and Information Assurance) for applying these technologies in ways to effectively meet the growing demands being placed on warehouse operators today and in the future. Here we can apply, say, voice and RFID to address the same issues in many warehousing practices.

Lets talk specifically about how ARIA can change the way tasks are accomplished in the warehouse starting with a standard case pick application. 

Here is a typical case pick workflow process:

  1. The warehouse operator gets direction from the WMS via the screen on their wireless computer. Go to aisle 7, bin 234, and pick 3.
  2. Upon arriving at aisle 7, bin 234 the warehouse operator pulls out their bar code scanner and scans the location.
  3. The WMS confirms the correct location.
  4. The operator then scans one or all of the 3 cases, puts the bar code scanner down and places the cases on the pallet.
  5. The operator may confirm the quantity (3) to the WMS via the keyboard on the wireless computer.
  6. The WMS then directs the operator to the next location via the screen.

The above represents the perfect execution of the pick.  It's a fact of life, however, that warehouse operators will take shortcuts to bypass some of the data entry or verification processes they feel are getting in the way of the most efficient task execution.  In voice picking applications, for example, they will try to memorise the "check digits" rather than spend the time to actually look at the location label, or they might find ways around scanning the bar codes on each case.  What if the operator scans 3 boxes then proceeds to place four on the pallet?  In the current environment these mistakes might be caught during the QC process. But fixing the mistake at that point requires a significant amount of extra work.  What if the QC process doesnt catch the mistake?  Your customer surely will. 

Now lets walk through that process using an ARIA enabled framework:

  1. The warehouse operator gets direction from the WMS via their headset which is attached to a mobile computer worn on their arm, belt or installed on their lift truck.  Go to aisle 7, bin 234, and pick 3.
  2. Upon arriving at aisle 7, bin 234, the RFID reader on the operators arm, belt or lift truck auto-confirms the operators location by reading an RFID tag embedded in the floor or on the rack.
  3. The warehouse operator then places 3 boxes on the pallet. 
  4. The RFID system confirms that the correct product has been picked in the correct quantity.
  5. If the wrong product or quantity is picked, the system immediately communicates appropriate corrective action at the pick location where the problem can be resolved with minimal disruption and expense.

The give and take relationship (and time consumption) that currently exists between the WMS and the operator no longer exists.  No longer does the operator have to disrupt their momentum in order feed the WMS the necessary data for the WMS to direct the operator.  The WMS gets what it needs automatically.  The operator is truly technology enabled (vs technology serving) and can focus on moving inventory.

Think beyond current paradigms and processes and begin to consider the full capabilities of a family of mobile computing platforms, enabled with voice, RFID and other AIDC technologies, and the many ways you can leverage their true potential with optimized application software and business processes. That is, don't think just of the technology-enabled operator, but of the technology-enabled process.

Many ARIA technologies are available today.  Whats needed is the marrying of these technologies to newly enabled workflows within the supporting WMS. Additionally, you will need to review current process to identify areas in which ARIA enabled technologies will produce the highest potential return on investment.

With ARIA, your customers get the right order at the right time, ALL the time. With ARIA, you make the next evolution.

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