Tapping Technology To Improve Lean Warehouses

Lean is traditionally thought of as a methodology for using visual signals, optimized layouts, and streamlined processes to improve material and information flow. But technology also plays a critical role in Lean operations, especially for companies managing global supply chains.

Implementing forecasting, advanced planning and scheduling, distribution requirements planning, and transportation and warehouse management systems can help support Lean goals.

Many warehousing operations today connect with customers and suppliers via electronic data interchange, and use warehouse management systems (WMS) to manage inventory within the four walls of the facility. Automatic identification systems and data capture technology such as bar-code scanners, mobile computers, wireless LANs, and radio-frequency identification help efficiently monitor and enable the real-time flow of information and products.

Without these technologies, many Lean practices—such as crossdocking, in which incoming materials are loaded from one transportation mode directly onto outbound trucks, trailers, or rail cars, with little or no storage in between—would be much harder, if not impossible, to accomplish.

Other emerging technologies that support leaner warehousing include:

Voice-directed picking and putaway (VDP). Order pickers wear headphones and microphones attached to wireless devices. When an order is ready to be picked, the system tells the picker where to go, and what and how much to pick. The picker then speaks into the microphone, identifying the items picked and the location. This information is transmitted to the computer, which, in turn, transmits it back to the main system for verification. The picker immediately is informed of any errors. VDP systems can also be used for putaway tasks.

Pick-to-light. A display device mounted at the front of a shelf on which an item is stored illuminates when an order is to be picked, showing the quantity. Workers press a button on the device to indicate the item has been picked. When all the buttons on the required item displays have been pressed, a master display device illuminates a green light to indicate that the picker is ready for the next order. A red master light indicates if an error needs to be corrected. Once all buttons have been pressed, data transmits to the main system to close out the order.

Integration with customers and suppliers. Companies that integrate with customer and supplier ERP systems improve visibility and collaboration.

Integration with other internal systems. Some WMS vendors integrate their systems with their clients’ order, transportation, and yard management tools, as well as advanced planning and scheduling systems, to create better internal communication and visibility.

The speed of acquisition, and extent and implementation of warehouse technology, depend on your industry and the size of your company. But these days, you often hear the buzzwords "continuous improvement," "labor productivity, measurement, and management," and "lean" in the warehouse, which is a step in the right direction.

We need to think of capital improvements not only for plants and equipment, but also technology, as both can impact productivity now and in the future.

Parts of this column are adapted from Lean Supply Chain & Logistics Management (McGraw-Hill; 2012) by Paul A. Myerson with permission from McGraw-Hill.

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