Stranded on “Islands of Automation”
Warehouse automation improves efficiencies
Warehouses have seen an enormous improvement in efficiency in automation over the last 20 years, and we have an array of technology to thank for that. First, conveyor systems cut down on walking time. Scanners allowed software to track what was going on in the warehouse in real time. Picking methods became more efficient via RF picking, pick to light, and voice picking technology.
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Then, warehouse automation allowed the product to come to the operator instead of the operator wasting time to find and walk to the product. All this technology is meant to make warehouse operations more efficient and manageable.
The devil is in the details
For many companies improving their warehouses did not happen overnight. The constant need for improvement would allow for individual improvement projects to be implemented every few years. The company might invest in conveyor one year, software in another year, and pick to light technology another year. Maybe a few years after that, they might add some print and apply equipment, weight in motion technology, etc. By this time, the conveyor would have to be updated to sort and perform at higher rates. Years ago each of these projects may have been implemented by different vendors employing different technologies.
If the system was bid out to low-cost solutions the software systems were probably all independent. This means data would be stored in many different locations. While the systems may communicate with each other from a functional standpoint, what started out as a way to make something more efficient and manageable, ended up creating many independent systems, which caused confusion and made management difficult…
“Islands of Automation” was coined in the 1980s to describe the difficulty in dealing with this architecture. Supportability was a big issue. When a support issue arose vendors would point fingers and claim their piece was working; it must be another technology that has issues. When managers had to analyze the productivity of each “Island of Automation”, they had to run multiple reports from multiple sources. Causing them to cross reference reports that were often not in the same format to get a clear picture of how the distribution center was performing.
Of course, that term was coined for the era of Pac-Man. Technology has improved so that warehouses no longer have to perform in this chaotic environment… A strong warehouse execution software (WES) is vital to tie all these islands together. Additional economies can be found through comprehensive reporting that has information from all warehouse activities, not just picking, conveyor reporting, loading, etc.
Integrators have thrived because they can bring together multiple areas of automation under one roof. They take responsibility for every aspect of the warehouse and have one source for reporting and management, thus ending the dreaded “Island of Automation”. Issues will always arise but having that one point of contact will allow you to focus on a solution than finding the appropriate person to help solve it.