A warehouse worker uses a ring scanner and FulfillmentEdge to pick an item.
By Mark Wheeler | March 26, 2021

Warehouse Maturity Model Phase 4: Turn to Technologies that Enable You to Better Respond to Market Demands

You must have real-time visibility into what’s happening across your entire operation if you want to orchestrate workflows for best-next-move guidance and decision making for your workforce.

Right now, nearly every organization is feeling the pressure to meet new market challenges, improve customers’ experiences and ensure compliance with ever-changing regulations and strict supplier management agreements. This is especially true of organizations that either manage or rely on warehouses to execute their operations, including manufacturers, retailers, utilities, governments, transportation and logistics companies, healthcare providers and equipment maintenance companies.

If you fall within this category, you have likely encountered many trials these last 12-18 months, each requiring some quick thinking and creative maneuvering to move past. Now, as you look to the horizon, your focus is likely shifting to solutions that will enable you to better anticipate and respond to customers’ needs as the volume and velocity of your operations continue to grow. The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the only thing triggering market fluctuations. Supply chains have been undergoing a transformation for years now in response to a number of economic and consumer influences. But the speed and scale at which operational changes must now occur is drastically different than it was a decade ago.

That’s why Zebra mapped out the Warehouse Maturity Model last year. We know that you no longer have the luxury of time, and you can’t afford to figure out what works and what doesn’t via trial and error. Even a single wrong turn at the warehousing level can detour an entire supply chain. You need clear guidance for your front-line workers on the best next step so that you and your partners can quickly get customers what they want. However, it’s quite possible that you aren’t going to be in a position to modernize your warehouse operations as quickly as your competitors. So, we’ve taken care to map out a strategic approach that allows you to dictate the pace of innovation and scale based on your business’ unique goals and challenges.

If you’ve been following along with my warehouse modernization blog series, you should have a fundamental understanding of the technology investments and business process improvements to target in Phases One, Two and Three. Phase Four builds on these core principles and technologies, but requires you to embrace them on a much grander scale.

Taking Visibility and Automation One (Huge) Step Further So You Can Get Ahead of Game-Changing Supply and Demand Shifts

If you have utilized real-time data capture technologies, such as radio frequency identification (RFID), Bluetooth® Low Energy or 3D sensors for some targeted applications, then you have probably started noticing all the valuable data you are collecting. You may have also realized that you are utilizing just a fraction of it to get some pretty good results. Did you know that all that real-time data can give you data-driven insights that can help you quantify decisions, optimize operations and meet goals? Moving into Phase Four is how you begin to utilize that data for those purposes. Phase Four is when you will expand the use of real-time data wall-to-wall in your facility to orchestrate all the assets that have been instrumented with real-time locationing technology, including goods, pallets, lift trucks, material handling equipment and even people. Using contextual data and business rules, you will now enable automated alerts that will allow your workers to make fewer decisions and manage their work by exception to increase productivity.  

Here are some other signs you’ll also know it’s time to commit the capital, resources and time required in Phase Four:

  • More comprehensive data is needed to better anticipate and respond to operational needs and improve decision making.
  • Lack of sufficient visibility of equipment and assets throughout your facility is resulting in poor utilization.
  • Notifications from current systems are not consistently supporting automation of next-best-moves for front-line workers.
  • You’re unable to quantify decisions or optimize operations.

Though every phase in the Zebra Warehouse Maturity Model drives improvements by leaps and bounds, Phase Four is when you will see the investment in real-time visibility really start to boost productivity, efficiency and outcomes on a broad scale. That’s because this is the point at which you will:

  • fully instrument people, inventory and equipment to increase visibility into movements.
  • automate every process and system that can be automated.
  • orchestrate all instrumented assets.
  • optimize warehouse flows for cost, speed and efficiency.
  • orchestrate warehouse systems with transport, yard and other enterprises.

More specifically, you will start to introduce more active radio frequency identification (RFID) and ultra-wideband (UWB) technologies alongside passive RFID and Bluetooth® Low Energy solutions for more widespread, precise and real-time locationing of tagged assets, whether stationary or in motion. This data, when combined with edge mobility solutions, analytics platforms and other enterprise systems, drastically increases visibility into and control over supply chain activities. It can be used to measure business practices, automate and optimize workflows and tell workers exactly what to do to improve the accuracy and integrity of several inbound, outbound, inventory and fulfillment processes.

Phase Four is when you might get a little more creative with technologies like augmented or assisted reality, real-time location systems (RTLS) and robotics solutions to completely transform your business. Automated alerts derived from the contextual data and business rules set forth in the RTLS can be sent to front-line workers wearing a heads-up display via solutions such as Zebra FulfillmentEdge™, which we talked about in context of optimizing the use of mobility in Phase Two. Add to that autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) that are orchestrated with the human workflows to show up when the last item is picked to move it to the packing area. Think about how many more orders your workers can pick if they are not constantly walking to the packing areas.

That being said, change management is going to be critical in Phase Four – for all stakeholders. Of course, front-line workers will need some time and training to familiarize themselves with the functionality and benefits of RTLS, automation, augmented or assisted reality and other advanced technology tools. But your IT teams, managers and decision makers will need support, too. More importantly, they will need to enter this phase with an open mind and willingness to collaborate with a number of different internal and external parties.

Changing Your Perspective Will Make It Easier to See the Best Path Forward (and More of Your Operations)

Like Phase Three, Phase Four is going to take a new way of thinking, but on a much larger scale. You will still define key performance indicators (KPIs), goals and desired outcomes to inform your strategy, but you will need to look beyond the obvious sources for valuable data analytics when doing so. Whether trying to get better control of inventory, improve the customer experience, or increase productivity throughout multiple interdependent workflows, it will be critical to determine the value of each problem you’re trying to solve before you search for a solution. This should be calculated in relation to the cost, speed and efficiency of warehouse flow optimization.

For example, when assessing the value of location solutions in improving utilization of equipment and assets, your KPIs could be anything from “fewer lift trucks per shift” to save on cost to “faster put away” or “more orders picked per day”. When weighing the use of autonomous mobile robots to move materials for workers, you may want to quantify what could happen when human labor will be able to shift focus on higher-value work. Or, you may just want to know how a new technology implementation or process refinement will help you understand an asset’s current location, how it got there, how long it’s been there or how efficiently it can be moved to save time.

Your definition of “success” will be predicated on these identified opportunities and potential outcomes. This discovery exercise will also help shape the solutions ultimately used to facilitate operational and financial improvements.

Start by identifying what assets need to be tracked or have their presence known, then determine the best hardware for the job. Assets can be anything from pallets, inventory, pick carts, supplies, tools, manual material handling equipment and lift trucks to people and autonomous mobile robots.

Once the assets are identified, think about the location accuracy and latency required for each (i.e., “How precise or close to the asset do I need to be directed and how often should the location be updated?”). Different asset types may require different types of location technology. This is referred to as asset instrumentation, and is something that you must get right to achieve desired outcomes in Phase Four. For example, if 100 cartons of goods that don’t move very often can use passive RFID tags with medium accuracy and low cost versus ultra-wideband sensors that are highly accurate and high cost, there will be significant cost savings and the goals and outcomes will likely be met using passive RFID tags.

Just remember: knowing the location of each individual asset or asset type is valuable. However, it’s even more valuable when you can bring all of the location sensor data together in one system and orchestrate it in a way that allows you to provide best-next-action guidance to front-line workers based on priority, proximity and safety. For example, consider a scenario in which your operation has fully instrumented workers, manual equipment, lift trucks, pallets and shelving locations. The location data is being captured for each instrumented asset, and all that data is being orchestrated together to help make automated data-driven decisions and generate best-next-actions for front-line workers. If you have a lift truck operator who needs to deliver a pallet to a shelf location at the far end of the warehouse, the automated rule that was applied to watch for and avoid pedestrian traffic will send real-time route guidance to his vehicle-mounted computer so that he knows to avoid an area that is congested with pedestrians for safety and efficiency purposes.

It’s also important to realize that operations will look different once you implement RTLS more broadly throughout your facility. You will need automated business rules to help workers manage tasks by exception, improve visibility around safety and prioritize workflows or tasks during peak versus non-peak times. Fortunately, you’ll be able to define what success looks like by setting up your automated business rules to precisely carry out your vision. Just know that, because you will have to rely on more automated systems to capture more data and process it much more quickly, you’re going to have to also rethink the business rules in a different way than you may have in previous phases. As data capture increases, human-driven decision making begins to decline for processes and workflows that can and should be automated and increase for more strategic, customer-oriented activities.

Consider how much smoother operations may run if barcode and RFID tag data is synchronized, or business rules applied to captured location data such as:

  • Lift truck location, including the direction moving
  • Automated receiving of goods on pallets and individual parcels
  • Location and time of received goods in inbound staging lanes
  • Location of workers
  • Location of pick carts, pallet jacks, pallets and other material handling equipment

You could implement business rules for prioritizing put-away (in order):

  1. Perishable goods
  2. Inventory needed for rush orders or work-in-progress
  3. Inventory flagged as out-of-stock
  4. High-volume and high-velocity inventory
  5. Non-priority inventory

And with the combination of captured inbound inventory data, location data, WMS data and pre-determined business rules, there are a variety of automated alerts that can be pushed out to front-line workers in real time to take advantage of orchestrating all instrumented assets and people. These include:

RFID portals that read tags as pallets are unloaded from trailers. Put-away prioritization rules help to alert drivers of the receiving staging lane to place the pallets.

Goods have a time stamp for each inventory move. A lift truck driver who has another pallet to pick-up in the freezer area is alerted to pick-up the pallet in receiving and deliver to the freezer, then pick-up the new pallet and deliver to the outbound dock. The result: the operator is rarely driving with empty forks.

Work-in-process assembly team needs a specific part to arrive to begin its assembly assignment. Automated receiving using RFID has confirmed receipt of the part, and it is in the receiving area. The closest resource to deliver the part to the assembly area is a worker with a manual pallet jack. He is alerted to move the pallet to the plant floor assembly area, and the new shift can start assembling.

Of course, as you start to integrate more augmented or assisted reality and robotics automation solutions, you will need to think through the rules that will help determine the best next action for each worker and autonomous mobile robot based on location, tasks and task priority. Real-time analytics should be used to drive continuous workflow improvements. Just be sure to aggregate data from all business systems when making such decisions, regardless of location.

The complexity of the supply chain reaches beyond the four walls of the warehouse. By the time you reach Phase Four, you will be ready to start connecting what is happening inside the four walls to what is happening outside the four walls by orchestrating communication between warehouse systems such as yard, transportation and other enterprise systems. Each can benefit from real-time visibility of what is happening inside the warehouse:

yard management can more efficiently move trailers to dock doors when they become available to increase throughput and minimize congestion in the yard.

transportation management will have visibility into the number of pallets waiting in the staging area so it can send the right size and number of trailers for pick up without manual scheduling.

Even your partners and customers further down the pipeline will benefit from the expanded visibility. If you are collectively trying to improve inventory distribution performance and limit the number of out-of-stocks on a retail store shelf, knowing how long an asset has been sitting on the dock could help you make changes that will allow you to get goods into forward picking locations as quickly as possible.

In other words, look beyond the four walls when building the visibility systems within them.

The Added Benefit of Phase Four Technology Investments

As you start to bring more intelligent technology systems online, IT managers will gain access to tools that enable them to proactively manage devices. For example, they may – for the first time ever – have the foresight needed to monitor the entire fleet, across multiple sites, and take failing devices out of the device pool before they get into the hands of your front-line workers and disrupt workflows. They will also be able to provide information to operations that helps to “right size” device allocation based on utilization by site. Don’t overlook or undervalue this type of operational data. It is just as critical to your business’ success as the task-related data being sent to the front lines.

Still Not Sure If You’re Ready to Move into Phase Four?

I know things are going to become a bit more complex as you start to scale visibility and automation technologies at this level. There are a lot of interdependencies that require thoughtful planning and strategic execution. But that’s why we’re here. Zebra and our partners are always just a phone call or email away, and we’ve gone to great lengths to provide “on-the-ground” support to our customers throughout the pandemic. (You can read more about how we conduct virtual discovery workshops, site visits and more via Remote Expert in this blog post.) Our priority is your success, and we’re here to guide you through every step of your modernization journey.

Editor’s Note:

You can learn more about the Phase Four technologies Mark discussed by visiting our website.

If you missed the previous posts, you can catch up here:

Energy and Utilities, Manufacturing, Warehouse and Distribution, Transportation and Logistics, Retail, Public Sector,
Mark Wheeler
Mark Wheeler

As the Director of Supply Chain Solutions, Mark Wheeler is responsible for Zebra’s warehouse and supply chain solutions global strategy. He collaborates closely with customers’ supply chain operations teams, as well as Zebra’s product development teams and solution partners, to align emerging technology solutions with customer needs.

Mr. Wheeler has held numerous positions in supply chain execution throughout his 30-year career, including strategic consulting, automated warehouse design and build and complex systems integration. He is a frequent speaker at industry events.

Mr. Wheeler holds a bachelor of science (BS) in mechanical engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University

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