Friday, July 7, 2017

Wi-Fi and Order Fulfillment is there a “Connection?”

The ability to use Wi-Fi has almost become expected no matter where we go in our daily lives. Whether we’re at home browsing our favorite sites, at a restaurant, or at work, staying connected is something most of us have grown fairly accustomed to. 

During our personal time, we aren’t exactly losing loads of money if we can’t hop on a Wi-Fi network (outside of the cellular data overages), but in an environment which operates 24x7, every second counts. This means 100% connectivity is necessary when using technologies which require Wi-Fi, such as mobile scanners, mobile picking systems (i.e. Pickcarts), and RFID tagging to name a few. 

However, staying connected inside a warehouse or distribution center is not that easy. All of the technologies mentioned are reliant on being able to stay connected as they move throughout the facility, this is known as “Roaming.”

Roaming occurs when the further you travel away from one Wi-Fi access point and closer you get to another; your connection is handed off to the one with better signal and all of this should happen seamlessly in the background. The scenario where roaming does not happen seamlessly is one that many facilities experience, but not for all of the same reasons.

There are many factors that come into play when implementing a wireless solution with no “dead zones,” and I’ve seen a lot of issues first hand which could have been avoided had the right information been available to the right individuals. A lot of times it’s just not public knowledge that a network plays a huge part in the performance of order picking technology in regards to its speed and accuracy.

Before implementing a mobile picking solution, a thorough IT infrastructure audit should be considered to assure the facility’s technology will yield the maximum performance the picking solution can produce. Typically, these audits include more than just Wi-Fi, but I will discuss the other pieces at a later date. Also, you can find a short Q & A at the end of this blog which may help when deciding on an implementation strategy for order fulfillment or Wi-Fi solutions.

While writing this, I did quite an extensive amount of research to find other material referencing the IT infrastructure and how it can affect order fulfillment technologies in order to compare the findings of other professionals with the findings that my own personal experience concluded. There was minimal to no information on this specific topic and what was available was quite old and possibly no longer relevant due to the rapid rate of change in technology. After realizing the true lack of information surrounding this topic, I feel even more obligated as a professional and as part of a forward thinking business that provides consultancy as well as flexible and smart order fulfillment solutions to make sure there is current, accurate, helpful information available to help those in need of direction. More to follow.

When reviewing your current wireless set up (assuming you have one), you can perform a self-assessment that may save some time for all parties just by answering the following questions which include a description of why these questions are pertinent:

1. Q: Are there places within the production area where signal quality is poor or there is no connectivity

A: This is important for having constant connection allowing pickers to roam, remain accurate, and profitable.

2Q: What kind of devices are using the wireless? (i.e. phones, tablets, laptops, scanners, etc.)

A: It’s important to note the types of devices; tablets, smartphones, and scanners are low power devices, which in turn means that the distance of their wireless range is limited giving a higher chance of connection loss.

3. Q: Roughly how many devices are connecting to the Wi-Fi?

A: Each wireless access point can only handle a certain number of connections before it starts dropping devices. In short, it’s like a highway, when too many cars are on the road there is no movement, and eventually no more cars can get on.

4. Q: Do you have very high racks, or other tall stacked material that could obstruct the signal path to your devices?

A: There are different types of antennae for different environments, in a building with high metal racks it’s preferred to have an antenna that is external and in some cases mounted to the highest point of a Pickcart or fork truck. This allows for better connectivity, but the need depends on your environment.

5. Q: Is coverage necessary in outdoor areas or loading docks?

A: If you have any need for tracking product when it has been loaded to be shipped, this will affect placement of your Wi-Fi. If you do not provide this information when planning for wireless implementation you may end up with no connectivity in these areas.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

WERC, Networking 101, a perspective from a Rookie:

May 1st, this was my first and I am sure not my last WERC (warehouse education and research council) conference. I was not quite sure what to expect being new to the industry and new to networking. I wondered whether this would be a welcoming crowd, what I’d learn. Would I pick up a thing or two or would it be too much and would I be uncovered as the new kid on the block?  

On day one I learned that WERC is geared towards the warehousing professionals at all levels, you have procurement managers to business owners and everything in between. Regardless of their job description each person has one thing in common, all are looking for a way to better their business. The one thing that resonated with me in the quest to fulfill that was “THE AMAZON EFFECT”, a topic mainstay for the entirety of the conference.

            Since Amazon started in 1994 they have changed the warehousing industry completely. The explosion of e-commerce dominating the retail and skyrocketing the 3PL market catapulted technology into distribution centers and depots. Myself working for a company that specializes in warehousing and order fulfillment solutions was utterly intrigued. These people were my sales targets! How could I gain their business?

The first session I attended was a Peer to Peer group on The Hottest Retail and Distribution Trends. Perfect. I sat down as the new guy in the room, and was intent on soaking up as much information as I possibly could. These people were my target market, I could surely gain a few contacts out of this meeting.

The room was at max capacity, so we divided into two smaller more intimate groups. Everyone went around and introduced themselves, the majority of the group being upper management for their respective companies, you had everyone from Walmart to Ryder present. Then there was me, the Pick to Light solutions provider who had been on the job for six months and was as green as the grass outside.

The conversations started, what was everyone’s pains? The topic ranged from hitting goals set in KPI’s to the quality of order picking in general, and then it happened. “Hey, Dan could you provide a little insight on this” the back of my head burned like someone was sitting behind me with a blow torch; this was your time to shine! “Ugh sure!” as everyone looked on for my explanation. “Well picking by light is the way to go” I exclaimed, like a new born fawn stumbling out of the gate, but as I gained momentum I could feel my confidence growing, and the room listening more intently. I covered everything from ROI to the basic pitfalls of just hiring your order pickers, to say the least I had felt like I had earned a place in that room by the end of that session.

As the topic moved on and others spoke their piece I realized something incredibly invaluable. The ability to relate to your peers and just hear their differing operational situations, as well as their views, is something you will never be able to read out of a book. It is something that you must experience. You can meet everyone from a head engineer at a robotics firm to a warehouse manager, it is all relevant because at one point or another these are people you will have to network with, relate to, and deal with in our professional lives. Having a place like WERC to put that on the main-stage is something that you really can not substitute.

So, in conclusion, as my first WERC conference concluded later that week, I felt a sense of community. A sense of this is a place I need to come back too, a place where I can grow as a professional, and as a part of the warehousing community.

Here is to the first of many, until next year, cheers.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Pickcarts – the best order picking tool yet?

By Pcdata USA

The latest innovation in order fulfillment automation, pick-to-light Pickcarts (or Pickcarts for short) have become increasingly popular in the order fulfillment market, and rightfully so. Pickcarts may be the best order fulfillment tool yet, providing an optimum in operational flexibility, order picking speed and accuracy, while minimizing most all the drawbacks associated with alternative technologies, such as RF and voice.

With Pickcarts, multiple orders are picked to their respective totes, in one go-around the warehouse. Orders are assigned to a cart from a central server, with each LED light mounted on the cart representing and individual order. The operator is directed, typically through a visual aid of some kind, a LED or a computer tablet mounted on the cart, to a location in the warehouse. The arrival at the specified location is confirmed through a scan of the barcode at the location or the SKU.

The LEDs which represent the orders on the cart requiring this specific SKU, will light up and show the operator how many to pick. Each pick, once completed is confirmed through an acknowledgement button push which extinguishes the LED light. Once all the orders on the cart are completed this way, the operator is directed to the next SKU location at which point the process repeats itself.

Pickcarts are being deployed in slower-moving SKU picking, in high SKU – low line order intensity operations, e-commerce operations, and multi-order picking scenarios.

The benefits of using any order pick technology solution over paper picking are numerous and obvious. Less obvious perhaps are the benefits of Pickcarts over RF or voice picking. Simplicity of operation for one. No complicated menus or voice scripts need to be learned. Simply scan the indicated SKU location, and the high visibility LED displays on the Pickcart, provide a constant reminder of quantities that need to be picked.

No extensive voice interactions with the operating system, slowing down the order picking process and isolating the operator from his/her work environment - as is the complaint with voice picking. With a Pickcart the operator remains constantly aware of his/her surroundings.
RF can be more cumbersome still, with the operator having to hold or carry the RF device, to confirm each pick, but also provide directions to the next location in the warehouse. Pickcarts tend to be faster and more accurate as a result.

Many operations using RF and voice will resort to bulk-picking, sorting the products at the end of the warehouse run. With Pickcarts bulk picking is not necessary (let alone single order line picking) as the orders are picked individually, directly on the cart. Depending on the order profiles and products picked, Pickcarts can handle 20, 40 or even over 100 orders at one time. It all depends on whatever works best for your operation.
Just make sure to partner with a Pickcart supplier who understands your needs and can translate these needs to an optimal Pickcart layout.

So, what is most important when selecting from the various Pickcart technology suppliers out there? There are a few factors to pay attention to;

Some suppliers only deliver complete solutions, i.e. including the cart hardware itself, whereas other Pickcart suppliers provide the option of supplying the lights and technology separately, allowing the user to retrofit existing carts, which tend to work reasonably well from a layout perspective, and thus minimize the investment.

Understanding your own operational flexibility needs, and how well the Pickcart design fits with those needs is also an important factor. If the operation changes often; How easily can the technology on the cart be reconfigured? Can the layout of the cart be changed easily? Tote sizes increased / decreased? Can the number of lights on the cart be changed easily if the order profile changes often? How flexible is the technology platform and the software used?

Even if operational changes are not that frequent, making sure the core of the Pickcart technology is as flexible as possible, keep options open for future changes, and that can never be a bad thing.
Easy to replace, modular Pick-to-Light hardware and components also ensure lower maintenance and support costs. Built-in displays may look good, but can prove difficult and therefore expensive to replace.  

Most difficult to assess is the operator interface; how easy is it to configure, reconfigure, load orders and actually pick orders? Here too there are significant differences. There are carts that require constant communication to the WMS system, and therefore require good WiFi coverage throughout the warehouse. This is no different than RF or voice, but there are also Pickcart solutions that don’t. This potentially lowers the investment that needs to be made, certainly if no pre-existing WiFi network exists in the warehouse.

There are Pickcart solutions which actually will show the operator the shortest route through the warehouse, to fulfill the orders loaded on the cart walking the shortest distance. Not only more efficient, the operators will appreciate this as well. A warehouse map uploaded into a cart-mounted tablet showing the operator the optimal route, avoiding one way systems, warehouse obstructions, or size restrictions. 
Pickcarts are quickly becoming known as the most effective and efficient order picking solutions for many warehouse operations and rightfully so. As a stand-alone system or as part of a hybrid order fulfillment solution Pickcarts will increase efficiency, create transparency in an inventory process and improve overall quality to customers.

Pcdata USA is a global logistics systems leader for supply chain automation. Creator of Flexible, Simple & Smart, Warehouse Management Systems, Order Fulfillment and Tracking Solutions. Contact Pcdata USA at (855) 844-1086. Follow Pcdata USA on Twitter