What is warehouse management?
Warehouse management covers a wide array of processes, from receiving and inventory put away to order fulfilment (picking, packing and shipping). This article focuses on order fulfilment where high-volume orders are consolidated before shipping.
The image below shows a simplistic view of a warehouse layout. In the diagram, the outbound processes will flow from the Picking Area to the Staging Area before being consolidated and shipped from the Packing Area.
Graphic designed by Martina Viljoen
What are high-volume orders?
It is important to understand the main differences between low-volume and high-volume picking.
Low-volume orders could be retailers distributing to the general public:
- A single worker can pick up the entire order at a time.
- Orders are picked directly into boxes that can be shipped.
High-volume orders, typically orders shipped between branches or orders for a commercial customer:
- All items for an order cannot be picked by a single worker.
- The entire order cannot be picked into one box.
- Multiple pieces of equipment (forklift, lift truck, trolley etc) may be required to pick different items of the order.
- Multiple pickers will deliver the order components at different times, which need to be staged in a central location until all items for the order are available for further processing.
- The staging area has limited space.
- Items for an order need to be staged close together.
- Items for the order that were picked into several containers must be consolidated and repackaged before they can be shipped.
High-volume orders present challenges and require a dynamic real-time warehouse management system.
Using a Warehouse Management System for the outbound process
A warehouse management system (WMS) is software that aids in the management of warehouse operations. A warehouse management system can be implemented to coordinate the fulfilment outbound process, ensuring that the correct products are delivered to the correct warehouse process at the right time.
The solution discussed in this article will ensure that:
- All items arrive at the right time at the correct location.
- The pack staging area does not get overfilled.
- Workers can handle exceptions and keep the process flowing.
- Through minimal user interaction the system will automatically balance the demand for orders with the capacity available on the pack tables.
After items are picked, the warehouse management system must route the items to the staging location closest to the packing table that will be responsible for consolidating and packing it. Depending on the warehouse rules – whether you can ship a partial order or not – the system will nominate the next order to be packed from the staging area.
To do so:
- Each table is assigned to a destination.
- Each table has a given capacity – the number of items that can be packed in an hour.
- Each destination has a given packing cut-off time by which all items for the destination must be packed.
- During consolidation the content of the order is verified and packed into boxes for shipping.
- The system then nominates the next order to be packed next and where it has been staged.
To automatically balance the demand the Warehouse Management System must:
- Calculate the rate at which the tables must pack given the number of orders that must be shipped to a destination.
- Suggest the number of tables required to pack for a destination.
- If a table falls behind the system can automatically assign adjacent tables dynamically to assist, but only if the adjacent tables are ahead of their cut-off time.
- Prioritise partially picked orders for completion to ensure that the order can be packed as soon as possible and not block the pack staging area.
If it is not possible to assign an adjacent table to assist automatically then additional resources are required and could be provided as follows:
- The supervisor can view a report for which routes are behind.
- A table can be permanently assigned to the destination that is behind schedule to assist with the packing process.
- When a new pack table is available for a destination, the system will then automatically start routing orders to that table.
Warehouses are geared towards outbound operations and processes that require items to be returned back into the warehouse inventory are much more cumbersome. For a warehouse management system to be successful in a high-volume order warehouse these processes must be dealt with efficiently. Accuracy of 99% is not sufficient and one of the most critical parts of the system is the ability to handle exceptions to allow the warehouse processes to continue as fast as possible. The success of a warehouse can be measured by how many errors have occurred and how these can be resolved rather than the number of successful orders shipped.
The Warehouse Management Systems must be able to efficiently:
- Return items to inventory from the packing area. For example, items assigned to an order that was cancelled at the last moment.
- Flag orders that have damaged or missing products identified during packing for priority picking.
Another important function of the warehouse management system is to be able to identify possible bottlenecks. A bottleneck is caused by the warehouse processes with the lowest throughput causing other processes to slow down. This determines the actual throughput of items moving through the supply chain. It can be caused by various factors, for example, there may not be enough forklift drivers to pick up all the orders before the required cut-off time. The warehouse management system should be able to provide a report identifying which process will create a bottleneck for the mix of orders being picked. If these situations are identified early on the warehouse manager can still mitigate the issues arising from this scenario.
Processing high-volume orders presents a lot of challenges due to the demands of efficiency and reliability. The approach in this article outlines a solution for implementing a Warehouse Management System that is responsive to changes in the demands of the various warehouse processes, is low maintenance and provides options for efficient problem resolution.
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