Warehouse automation has evolved significantly in recent years to a level where warehouse execution systems (WES) are now available to streamline material flow and order picking. These systems offer bakeries and snack producers a better way to store and ship goods to market.

WES represents a growing trend in warehouse management. These systems combine the functionality of warehouse management systems (WMS) and warehouse control systems (WCS) to optimize material flow and order picking. WES applications play a key role in reducing costs by facilitating the receipt, storage, tracking and retrieval of products. This allows companies to increase inventory accuracy and overcome order fulfillment challenges.

“Traditional WMS solutions process orders in batches that attempt to move work throughout a day or series of days,” says Gene Billings, director, software products, Intelligrated Software, Mason, OH. “On the other hand, a typical WCS manages the movement of product in near real-time. A WES takes traditional WMS functionality and moves it to near real-time, while orchestrating outbound order management in the most efficient manner, also in near real-time.”

The food industry has shown an increased demand for software solutions that control the entire warehouse process and reduce the complexity of using several function-specific applications. “We have seen food manufacturers place a heavier focus on inventory efficiencies—specifically when it comes to picking and counting. Zone picking is becoming one of the most-popular strategies for pulling job and sales order inventory,” says Scott Deakins, COO, Deacom Inc., Chesterbrook, PA.

“Raw and finished goods carry different characteristics,” says Deakins. “By organizing the warehouse floor in these categories, a manufacturer can create ‘zones’ with designated pickers to implement a type of assembly line. This strategy drives efficiencies across various warehouse transactions, which include issuing, reserving, shipping and staging inventory.”

Smart software

WMS has evolved to meet these needs. New WMS solutions offer smart data retrieval and management, and automatically communicate with internal departments and customers, according to Norman Leonhardt, director, business development, Witron Integrated Logistics Corp., Arlington Heights, IL.

“WMS today is more comprehensive and delivers more data throughout the supply chain,” says Leonhardt. “The trends for big data through the Internet require companies to constantly obtain data about inbound, outbound, inventory and material requirements, as well as purchasing and cooperation with suppliers and customers.”

While not necessarily new, the application of a wave-less WMS offers major benefits to the end user, says Mark Dickinson, executive sales manager, Automated Systems Div., SSI Schaefer Systems International Inc., Charlotte, NC. “All incoming orders are evaluated, based on a set of criteria determined by the customer, and assigned a priority. When a worker becomes available, the order or group of orders with the highest priority is assigned for fulfillment. As the day progresses, discrete order priority may change based on the rules, but it allows for the most critical work to be executed as quickly as possible.”

A primary component of a WES, this software improves order fulfillment, shipping and receiving—from ingredients and packaging coming in, to finished products going out the door. WES helps wholesalers optimize the order-fulfillment process, as the software controls inventory and order management, billing, workflow and material handling equipment.

“Most importantly, WES helps warehouses implement just-in-time order-fulfillment strategies,” says Dave Williams, director of software and solution delivery, Westfalia Technologies Inc., York, PA. “By preparing the order when a truck arrives instead of staging it hours in advance, companies can free up valuable warehouse space and keep operations running smoothly.”

Efficient picking

The latest innovations in robotic order picking include voice picking, radio-frequency picking, and automated storage and retrieval.

Voice picking is one of the most-active areas of improvement within the industry, and the lower cost of hardware options is making this a viable option to a much wider audience. “The innovations are less about the functional solution, and more about the feasibility of deploying this solution within smaller operations, given reduced capital-expenditure requirements,” says Derek Curtis, vice president of sales, DSD & Mobile Logistics Group, HighJump, Minneapolis.

The latest order-picking innovations involve goods-to-person systems, which allow workers to stay put, while automated inventory storage and movement systems retrieve and deliver the parts or cartons they need directly to their workstation, notes Paul Laman, vice president, Food and Beverage Group, DMW&H Inc., Carlstadt, NJ.

“Workers are able to focus on ergonomics and high productivity,” says Laman. “Optimally, a goods-to-person solution is an integrated component of an automated fulfillment process that also may include high-density storage systems, pallet-based or tote/carton-based systems, horizontal and vertical carousels, robots, vertical lift modules, and pick-to-light or voice-activated technologies, depending on the specific product and market mix.”

Ralf Ulmer, president, toolbox Software North America Inc., Scottsdale, AZ, says his company’s dispotool system was created for bakeries and can be operated with multiple devices such as pick-by-light, pick-by-voice or—most recently—pick-by-vision. “Knowing what is available from production recording, the system has built-in rules for shortages and possible substitutions. The experience of nearly 800 installations around the world shows that, besides saving on labor, it significantly improves the accuracy of picking,” he notes.

Pick-by-light still is the most-efficient way for fresh bread and bun picking, adds Ulmer. “Radio frequency identification (RFID) is definitely a key technology for the future. The tracking of trays against tray loss will become easier once each tray has a RFID chip built-in.”

Heavy lifting

Essential warehouse equipment, such as pallet trucks and forklifts, also has evolved. New features are designed to increase productivity, and create safety and operational benefits. This equipment can help improve efficiency in key distribution processes, including those related to direct store delivery (DSD).

Yale Materials Handling Corp., Greenville, N.C., has introduced the MPB045VG walkie pallet truck, which features a UL-recognized lithium-ion battery pack. “This compact 6-in. battery compartment decreases the length of the truck and provides better maneuverability in tight spaces,” Mick McCormick, vice president of warehouse solutions for the company. “The flexible charging capabilities are another important aspect for DSD operations. Lithium-ion batteries are suitable for charging on-site and in-transit using a standard 120V wall outlet.”

Another innovation, Yale A-WARE, uses RFID tags to enforce location-based travel speed, acceleration and lift restrictions. RFID tags deployed in warehouse storage aisles are read by a truck-mounted RFID sensor. This automatically triggers traction and lift settings, which allows the truck to operate only at pre-defined speeds, heights and other parameters. This means the operator can pay more attention to tasks; it also protects trucks and facility infrastructure from collisions.

According to Mark Faiman, product manager, Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. Inc., Columbus, IN, forklifts are becoming more connected. As a result, telematics can help customers analyze their fleets and operations more effectively. For example, Toyota and Sprint recently launched T-Matics MOBILE, a forklift-based vehicle-management system designed to increase productivity and improve safety.

Toyota offers T-Matics MOBILE services through embedded and aftermarket solutions that leverage Sprint’s Machine-to-Machine (M2M) technology. This telematics solution offers a full set of monitoring and analytic capabilities that generates reports on both individual forklifts and entire fleets to: track forklifts for better operational visibility; gain and analyze unique data; and facilitate data-driven decisions.

Palletizing systems also have evolved to move products more efficiently through the warehouse. The I-Pack Station from DMW&H features enhanced down-stack palletizing with built-in stretch wrapping capabilities. Products are conveyed through the system and sent to a pack station where the worker is directed to put products on the pallet. They do this with minimal bending or stretching, minimizing potential injury. Products are loaded with laser guidance for optimal stability. When the pallet is full, it is wrapped and discharged for pickup.

To help streamline the movement of goods, Witron Integrated Logistics Corp. offers an integrated automation system. The centerpiece of the technology is an automatic palletizer that aligns cases on pallets according to multiple definitions such as customer requirements, pallet stability and pallet density. Between receiving and shipping, no goods are touched by human hands.

The I-Pack Station from UNEX Manufacturing Inc., Lakewood, NJ, triples the palletizing production rate, according to Brian C. Neuwirth, vice president of sales and marketing. “Because bakery and snack products have a shelf life, it is important to stock products by the ‘first in, first out’ (FIFO) method, which ensures that older products are picked first.”

With the UNEX Carton Flow FIFO systems, loading takes place in the back and picking takes place in front, so workers can replenish shelves from the back room while customers pick from the front. “It is impossible for newer products to be loaded in front of older products due to the rear loading,” Neuwirth adds. The system can be integrated with other picking technologies to further increase efficiency.