A few months ago, a client asked me to help him put together a short list of best-of-breed warehouse control system (WCS) vendors. Here is the problem he faced: his company uses a warehouse management system (WMS) that worked well when it was initially implemented. Over time, the company added various material handling systems, each with its own interface and “island” of control logic. The company now wants to upgrade its WMS, but all of these custom interfaces would make the upgrade as expensive as implementing a brand new system. This is the “islands of automation” problem.
My client’s company thought it would eventually implement Oracle WMS across all of its warehouses. The company reasoned that since it was already using Oracle’s ERP solution, acquisition costs would be lower and integration would be easier. It also believed Oracle WMS would provide better end-to-end traceability and recall capabilities. So, my client was looking for a WCS that could serve as a single interface to all material handling automation, and which would protect their upgrade path.
A while ago, I talked to Mark Guarino, Distribution Systems Manager North America at IKEA. In talking to Mark, I was struck by how, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
IKEA has a standardized interface between its automation systems and WMS. IKEA has six warehouses in North America, serving a variety of functions: high-flow facilities focused on the 20 percent of SKUs that account for 80 percent of the volume; low-flow warehouses that use forklifts with vehicle-mounted PCs for case pickings; and warehouses for direct-to-consumer fulfillment. In four of the distribution centers, IKEA has automatic storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) in the center of the facilities.
Two of the distribution centers are strictly high-flow facilities and their AS/RS solutions are fully automated. Two other DCs use semi-automated AS/RS—i.e., picking is automated, but put-away is done manually by a narrow-aisle crane. IKEA has standardized on Consafe Logistics’ WMS, but it has not standardized on AS/RS suppliers (the company uses LTW and ViaStore in North America and other suppliers in Europe and Asia). IKEA’s AS/RS suppliers provide the WCS, but they had to prove that they were compliant with a standard interface between their AS/RS solution and Consafe’s Astro WMS.
IKEA does two upgrades per year that include a combination of improved functionality offered by Consafe and specific enhancements requested by IKEA. After several weeks of testing, the company goes live with the new solution. Mark reports that because of the specified interface, the AS/RS “islands of automation” issue has never been a problem in upgrade situations.
While IKEA’s forethought is praiseworthy, it would be nice to have standards in this area. There are many material handling companies, and many different types of material handling equipment (conveyors, sorters, A-frames, pick-to-light, carrousels, etc.), but no standards for interfacing to WMS.
However, it must be recognized that even if there were standards, a best-of-breed WCS would still be needed in some cases to prevent conveyors from becoming too congested and to balance how goods are released from a conveyor to downstream stations. A common WCS can also provide for a standard equipment dashboard with maintenance and utilization alerts across all automation systems. Nevertheless, while interface standards would not be a cure all, they would clearly improve the speed of implementation, flexibility, and upgrade paths for many companies that implement material handling solutions.