Issue Date: 16 February 2009
Ref: CHE09/01

By Alex Mills, Sales & Marketing Director, Chess Logistics Technology

There is nothing inherently green about a WMS but it can support a sustainability strategy because of the way it enables greater data accuracy and operational efficiency. One of the early justifications for WMS was to deliver the so-called paperless warehouse to increase data accuracy, improve productivity and maximise efficiency. Only more recently has the elimination of paper been seen as a good sustainability objective. Other advantages derive from the way in which the WMS enables or supports processes which themselves help to deliver sustainability.

One aim of sustainability is to reduce the distance covered by delivery vehicles, often called “food miles” but also part of the wider carbon footprint. In general terms, this can be achieved by maximising the load, greater routing efficiency and by reducing the number of returns.

Most decent WMS support sophisticated load assembly tasks that ensure maximum utilisation of space on the vehicle. Although this has been possible for some time the latest applications are better at ensuring orders are picked and assembled in the correct sequence for optimum loading, routing and delivery. Interfacing with route planning and scheduling applications ensures much of this can be achieved automatically while working to user defined parameters and priorities.

Good WMS have always delivered higher stock accuracy to ensure more deliveries are fulfilled correctly first time to reduce the need for returns or additional shipments that involve additional movements. Improving fulfilment accuracy by just a small fraction can have a significant impact on these processes. While conventional WMS typically offered order accuracy percentages in the high nineties, adding in newer technologies such as bar-coding, voice directed picking and RFID can, and do, offer near 100 per cent levels of accuracy. Interfacing the WMS with other business systems, such as order processing and invoicing also helps to eliminate the potential for errors that lead to incomplete or incorrect deliveries and order fulfilment.

The WMS can also help deliver more sustainable operations inside the warehouse. The latest applications incorporate analytical and reporting tools that allow users to set a wide range of operational parameters and priorities to optimise their stock management and order picking operations. When the WMS is configured to minimise the picking route, for example, the aim may be to improve productivity but it could also minimise the energy consumption of the warehouse trucks which clearly has an environmental as well as cost benefit. However, there may be a compromise with overall efficiency because the shortest route may not always be the most productive or responsive to customer requirements.

Analytical tools in the latest WMS help to identify previously unseen patterns in warehouse operations. Although there may be good reasons to keep similar items close together in the warehouse it could make more sense to group them using customer facing parameters. For example, reorganising storage so that all fast moving items are together and at the ends of aisles or at the front of the warehouse can help to minimise potential pick paths. More generally WMS with facilities to plan and schedule volumes support a green strategy by aligning resources to requirements.

WMS have always supported the optimum utilisation of space in the warehouse. Using more of the available space and increasing throughput offers a better alternative to a larger building and slow moving operations and requires fewer natural resources. Cold stores, for example, often utilise mobile racking to maximise bulk storage capacities in a smaller cube space. This minimises the overall energy footprint of the building in terms of refrigeration and lighting but can pose challenges in terms of load handling flexibility. Ideally the WMS will support the kind of flexibility required to support dynamic handling environments by enabling different priorities to be set in real time. Many operators, including a number of Chess customers, would probably argue that their efficiency is as good as many conventional warehouses.

Another solution to the need to reduce floor space has been to build taller warehouses. As lift trucks became more powerful and efficient this was seen as an ideal way to maximise volume utilisation. However, lifting higher takes time and uses more energy and may not always be an ideal solution. But the best WMS should be capable of supporting any operation that is chosen or required. Simulation and modelling techniques, supported by the WMS, can help operators decide the optimum configuration for their proposed warehouse before they commission the building or install racking.