Control Systems / Human Machine Interface

Smart tech, meet warehouse control

Our latest Automation Zone column: How a smart warehouse control system can save your plant time and money.

By Scott Stone, Cisco-Eagle

It’s stating the obvious to say that today’s warehouses and distribution operations have a lot of moving pieces.

With increased automation throughout the warehouse environment, ensuring the proper working order of these pieces is mission-critical. Maintenance and reliability teams face the challenge of keeping all these elements not just up and running but optimized to meet production goals.

Many warehouses are turning to software and “smart systems” to regulate their increasingly complex processes. A warehouse control system (WCS) provides a single pane of glass with which to monitor, balance, and track what’s going on throughout the production line in real time.

A WCS provides visibility into all automated or semi-automated elements (e.g. conveyors, carousels, palletizers, etc.). It can coordinate the production line’s diverse elements and enable them to work in concert, promoting overall efficiency.

Another advantage of a WCS is the benefits it yields for maintenance and reliability initiatives. Consider this: Much of a warehouse’s capital investment is tied to its equipment, and each piece is vital to the success of the overall operation. If a conveyor or a carousel or another automated element goes out of commission, it has a ripple effect on the entire process, ultimately slowing or stalling production.

Beyond improving efficiency, a WCS also has the capability to alert maintenance and reliability teams to issues with the equipment. Improved reliability is the starting point for a more-efficient, safer manufacturing flow.

As with any improvement to a warehouse, there has to be a value proposition to justify investment in it. The key question: In what way(s) will this new technology enable my workforce to be better utilized and my warehouse operations to improve?

Let’s take a look at three specific ways in which a WCS creates value within a warehouse:

1. Reducing time to execute operations

A warehouse’s equipment is the backbone of its entire operation. Today’s automated material handling systems make warehouses safer, more ergonomic, and more efficient. To maximize these benefits, machines have to work at a high level. The complexity of a modern warehouse or distribution center challenges maintenance teams.

A WCS sits in a layer that directly connects with automated equipment. It can monitor each element of a warehouse’s automated operations in real time. The WCS can adjust at the level of a single piece of equipment and often through the entire facility.

The type of integrated system provides a uniform interface for various automated subsystems and, without human interaction, a WCS can modify the behavior of AS/RS, carousels, conveyors, sorting systems, and more, taking much of the guesswork out of optimization within a facility.

2. Better monitoring leads to better maintenance

Beyond being able to coordinate diverse elements, a warehouse control system can help keep maintenance and reliability teams on top of routine projects and can troubleshoot potential issues. Unanticipated downtime can wreak havoc on operations, causing issues with product quality, timeliness, and efficiency. A regular schedule of maintenance can go a long way toward keeping equipment breakdowns at bay.

A WCS tracks the operational status of machines and sends alerts for specific events that disrupt production, such as emergency stops, full conveyor lines, and jams. It also can track maintenance status of each piece of equipment.

A centralized system makes the information on diverse systems readily available in one place. Regular maintenance, as well as real-time equipment issues, are accessible. This type of information is critical for the maintenance teams that play a vital role in today’s complex warehouse systems.

3. Timely, accurate information enables better decisions

A WCS brings together two key sets of information: 1) insights on the overall processes and 2) performance analytics of each piece of equipment. In an industry where timing is a large component of overall success, the real-time data provided on both areas can be leveraged to improve the process in its entirety or in certain areas.

For example, a fulfillment center with a WCS can actively track inventory in real time, enabling orders to be picked, packed, and shipped with accuracy. Managers no longer need to jump through hoops or depend on previous experience to make decisions on what needs to be done. Working within a warehouse’s existing environment, the WCS synthesizes critical data that can be used to achieve greater efficiency and a leaner operation.

With today’s technology, many warehouses and distribution centers are able to do more with less. Finding the right balance of speed and efficiency that doesn’t compromise safety or quality is both a challenge and a necessity.

Leveraging a warehouse control system is a way to provide valuable insight and visibility into the automated elements in a warehouse. It’s a mechanism for finding the right balance on any given day and a means of proactively maintaining machines to ensure their longevity and reliability.