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How Robotics and WMS Support a Centralized Distribution System

Posted: April 04, 2020 by Ly Phan

How Robotics and WMS Support a Centralized Distribution System

The “internet of things” has been an established concept for the better part of a decade, with 5.8 billion connected automotive and enterprise devices by the end of 2020. The growth is expected to accelerate in the next ten years with the roll-out of 5G taking hold. By using existing technology such as warehouse management software, businesses can move towards a centralized distribution system.

There’s little doubt that autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are the present and future of warehouse operations. The technology has moved quickly in the last decade, to the point these machines no longer need magnetic grids or tracks to navigate around. Instead, AMRs can use sensors and GPS to move around the floor independently. 

In a sign of the underlying confidence in robotics, logistics giant DHL has put AMRs at the heart of its strategy. According to Oscar de Bok, CEO of DHL Supply Chain, the company plans to invest $2.2bn into robotics and digitalization to drive a strategy that focuses on “delivering excellence in a digital world.”

By using enhanced warehouse management systems, businesses will be able to harness the power of AMRs and use intelligent machines to improve efficiency and productivity rapidly. 


Functions of AMRs

It’s no exaggeration to say that AMRs have the ability to revolutionize distribution center operations. The devices can smooth the path for products to move through the supply chain with minimal human input. They can assist in the following functions:

  1. Order Fulfillment: Using WMS, companies can quickly process orders through the system and deliver the information to AMRs. The devices can zip around the floor and pick the relevant products to fulfill the order. 
  2. Restock: Setting stock alerts through a cloud-based system, the information can be fed in real-time to the AMRs, which can automatically restock products as required.
  3. Locating Products: Utilizing the power of RFID technology, AMRs can be deployed to locate products quickly and efficiently. Instead of using humans, the machines use mapping and data to find items with a higher degree of accuracy.
  4. Process Real-Time Information: At the heart of the automation revolution is data. AMRs can process and deliver information to managers with high speed and accuracy. These real-time updates can aid decision-making and boost the efficiency of warehouse operations.

Another factor behind the appeal of AMRs is the reduction of labor costs, together with generating extra productivity. For instance, one fashion retailer brought in these innovative devices to help manage growing e-commerce demands and deal with the increased number of loads. 

The key is to look at AMRs as revenue generators rather than merely a way to save money. By doing the legwork, the devices can support existing teams to become more productive, whether it’s picking the products or moving them around the warehouse. 

The uplift in productivity can be seen in the case of XPO Logistics, which deployed 5,000 robots in the run-up to the 2018 festive season. As a result of this investment, the company saw productivity almost double and enhanced safety by limiting human input.


Role of WMS

At SmartTurn, we provide a cloud-based WMS which offers a host of solutions for distribution centers. Chief among them is the capability to integrate with third-party systems such as robotics. Acting as a central hub for warehouse operations, workers will be able to utilize SmartTurn’s platform to manage the AMRs efficiently.

A critical element to successful integration is the transfer of information and data. Being in the cloud, SmartTurn’s WMS can easily communicate with the devices through wireless technology. For instance, AMRs can be equipped with RFID scanners, which enables them to locate and pick items through automated processes.

The other role of WMS is to analyze the performance of the AMRs, working out the best routes and optimal loads they can carry. In doing so, companies will be able to fine-tune their operations and further increase productivity. 

With a fully integrated system in place, the AMRs, WMS, and workers can work to each of their strengths:

  1. AMRs: Repetitive tasks such as picking, restocking, and scanning. 
  2. WMS: Data processing and analytics. Software can help identify trends, optimal routes, and buying patterns to enable maximum efficiency.
  3. Workers: Their job is to interpret the data and implement the relevant strategies using the tools they have available. This may include mobile devices, forklift trucks, and AMRs.

It’s crucial to utilize the flexibility of cloud-based software, which can easily transfer data between different platforms, feeding information into a centralized distribution system. From a single, navigable dashboard, managers will retain real-time visibility and be able to run operations with a few clicks. 


Synergy is Essential

A successful, slick supply chain relies on synergized operations from all stakeholders and trading partners. Distribution centers serve as a hub of these chains, delivering items from the manufacturer to the customer. Having an integrated operation within the warehouse is critical to making a positive contribution to the broader chain.

Smart and proactive use of technology also comes down to synergy. Before deploying AMRs, consider the key metrics of your business, which include:

  1. Order Fulfillment Accuracy
  2. Stock Levels
  3. Speed of Delivery
  4. Pick and Pack Time

Using both WMS and robotics can significantly improve performance on each of these metrics, if deployed in the right way. It’s important to ensure synergy in the setup and implementation process, together with training for workers. At SmartTurn, for example, we offer a free training video for new users.


AMRs Can Serve as the Engine

The purpose of the engine in automotives is to keep it driving forward. AMRs can fulfill this role in distribution centers, doing the legwork so workers can become more productive. However, an engine cannot work on its own - it needs other components to be working just as efficiently to maximize its potential.

It’s critical to do the research and work out how best to use the AMRs, and ensure you have a cloud-based WMS in place. By taking warehouse operations to the cloud, businesses would have complete flexibility and utilize the full power of robotics.

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