Auto Putaway or Manual? You can’t beat the WMS

By Alex Mills, Sales and Marketing Director at ProSKU. 

When it comes to receiving goods and looking for somewhere to put them, a modern warehouse management system (WMS) can surpass the knowledge of even the most competent warehouse operative. It can do this because it holds a map of the storage locations in a warehouse and records what is stored in them in real time. 

This means that when a warehouse receives goods for putaway, the system can calculate in an instant the best place to put them. By doing this it reduces the time needed to look for space and recording actions. It is also unerringly accurate.

And as most warehouse managers would admit, getting this right will save even more time when it comes to picking the goods for despatch. Order pickers can be directed straight to the right location to find product of the correct batch, rotation or other criteria as required. But as well as saving the time used looking for somewhere to place product, or knowing exactly where to go and pick it, it also helps optimise usage of available space to get a better return on costs.

So why would it be difficult to accept that such functionality can provide an operational benefit?

There are a number of explanations for this. Naturally, people unused to working with a WMS will have confidence in their staff and trust them to “know how to do things best”. But often this can mean reliance on one or two people in the operation. Which prompts the inevitable question: “what happens if Fred, or Freda gets run over by a bus?” Who would know best then? There is also a misconception that a system cannot be as flexible as trusted staff when it comes to dealing with particular requirements, or handling exceptions. 

However, with the functionality offered by a modern WMS system this just is not true anymore. An example of this is the commonly stated requirement to “keep everything together”, meaning all goods for a certain customer, or of a specific range or product type. If there is one thing that a good WMS can do, it is that.

It could be argued that keeping everything together is not the most efficient way to store and pick goods, but that is a point for another day. Most modern WMS will offer some form of rules-based ‘putaway strategy’. This allows the system user to create rules that determine where and how goods can be stored. These rules are referenced in split seconds by the system in order to decide where incoming stock can be placed. However good the warehouse staff are, it is unlikely they can do this.

This strategy includes so-called ‘hard rules’, things like keeping the same products or same date rotation together, and the ability to mix products (or not) in locations. But it also covers preferences about which storage zones or locations are used and in what sequence, as well as preferences based on product, like where to store fast or slow movers, and the need to activate things like pick location ‘top-up’. In short, there is little most warehouses need that cannot be decided by the system.

The other common objection centres on the belief that a human user can handle variations faster than a system. There seems to be a fear that if a system-generated instruction needs to be varied this will be operationally difficult, but this is yet another fallacy.

A modern WMS will provide the means to handle variations with ease, and with systems that use handheld computers this can usually be done instantly and in real time by staff on the ground, with no supervisor intervention.

So, if for example a system instruction to place goods into one location cannot be carried out, the user can simply select (or automatically request) another location and confirm this to the system. If the quantity to put away is incorrect due to a miscount, a user can be allowed to correct this and update the system at the point of putaway. And if incorrect for other reasons it can be logged as a problem allowing a supervisor to investigate while the operative continues with other tasks.

Perhaps the chief benefit of the system-made decision here is the effective management of space. Storage space is expensive, and logistics operators in competitive fields can operate close to capacity, where every inch of space is vital. A good system will make optimum decisions based on defined location capacities, either numeric or volumetric. So, whatever your chosen strategy you will use space to its full potential. It removes the need to worry about where and how to store things, giving warehouse staff more time to focus on despatching orders to customers.

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