Inefficiencies in the global supply chain have come under intense scrutiny in recent years, as competition increases and consumers expect goods on demand. Supply chain leaders are looking to a wave of new robotics and automation technology to meet these new expectations.
From Walmart’s fleet of last-mile delivery drones to Amazon’s new robot models for picking and transport, advanced WMS integrations and robotics are entering the industry to improve efficiency and reduce cost. In this post we’ll review today’s common WMS integrations, what new robotics technology is coming down the pike, and tips on how to deploy modern WMS integrations successfully.
What is a Warehouse Management System?
A Warehouse Management System (WMS) is a comprehensive software platform designed to optimize and automate the daily operations of a warehouse. A WMS enables enterprises to manage warehouse operations by automating supply chain fulfillment activities - from the distribution center right up to the customer’s hands.
A WMS also provides visibility into a company's inventory, tracking products or materials as they enter or leave the warehouse. With this full visibility of operations, supply chain leaders can make the most of their resources and make better decisions.
The Key Benefits of WMS Integrations
A WMS integration can enable a business to operate more efficiently by automating routine tasks and more intelligently by providing real-time insights. These integrations can increase transparency across the organization and ensure that goods are received, put away, and dispatched in the most efficient manner possible.
Common WMS Integrations and their Benefits
Because a warehouse management system plays a central role in the buying cycle, integrating it with other business systems can drastically improve business efficiency. A WMS can be integrated with platforms responsible for everything from financial planning to customer satisfaction. Here are some of the most common WMS integrations being used by supply chain leaders.
- ERP Integration: An Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system provides a holistic view of an organization's resources, processes, and finances. Integrating a WMS with an ERP system allows for efficient planning and synchronization of warehouse activities with broader business objectives like inventory forecasting, demand planning, and optimized production scheduling.
- TMS Integration: A Transportation Management System (TMS) helps manage the transportation of goods between a warehouse and customers or suppliers. Integrating a WMS with a TMS streamlines the entire logistics process, optimizing transportation routes, reducing freight costs, and providing real-time visibility into shipment statuses.
- WCS Integration: Warehouse Conveyor Systems (WCS) play a crucial role in any large warehouse, transporting items from picking zones to packing areas. Integrating a WMS into WCS helps maintain accurate tracking of items within the warehouse.
These common integrations of connecting your WMS into your ERP, TMS or WCS have delivered tangible business benefits. But there’s a new wave of technology that can truly revolutionize the operations of your warehouse - if implemented in the right way.
WMS Integrations For a Modern Warehouse
Recent data from Gartner's Supply Chain Practice show three-quarters of companies plan on using some type of robotic warehouse automation by 2027. In a recent blog post we went in-depth how new AI and robotics technology are starting to digitally transform warehouses. You can find the full analysis in that post, but we’ll summarize the key benefits of Robotics here.
Benefits of Using Robotics in a Warehouse
- Automated Workflows: Robots can automate processes typically carried out by human labor (ie. picking and packing) and make these processes faster and more efficient.
- Improved Efficiency and Error Reduction: When repetitive jobs are replaced by robots, the possibility of human error is significantly reduced.
- Enhanced Safety: Physically taxing and potentially dangerous warehouse duties to robots ensures employees work in a safe atmosphere.
What a Modern WMS Robotics Integration Would Look Like
Most robotic vendors have an open API today that makes integrations to a WMS fairly straightforward. How your WMS communicates with these systems could be critical to account for near real-time and accurate messaging.
Most WMS vendors have a standard integration tool that could be utilized to send and receive messages from external applications, however, they tend to be slower in processing messages, considering the Automation systems send information for every pick in the warehouse. Custom Communication Methods may be preferred for addressing the high volume of message flows between WMS and 3rd party applications.
Communication File Formats
While JSON and XML are popular choices among major vendors, a traditional Comma Separated (CSV) works just as well and is actually the preferred choice for Japanese AMR Leader Rapyuta Robotics.
Most Robotic Vendors support various communication methods such as:
- Web Services - REST / SOAP
- MSMQ (Microsoft Messaging Queue) - A windows only option
- AWS S3 (simple storage service)
- Azure Services Bus
- SFTP / FTP (Secure File Transfer Protocol)
- File Transport (Local Shared Folder)
Other Technical Considerations
Additional technical requirements for a successful robotics implementation may include:
- A recommendation on the message format for near real-time and secure data transfer
- Specifications regarding communications types and preferred approach for the WMS and the Robotic vendor combination
- A comprehensive list of all touchpoints, which not only helps create mapping documents, but also helps create use case and test scenarios
- Knowledge of networking prerequisites so the appropriate firewalls can be set up and ports opened for a plug-and-play experience
Best Practices: Successful Robotics Implementation
Through our consultative work with modern, high-volume warehouses, the K2S team has honed the following best practices to keep in mind when implementing robotics into your warehouse.
- Take an Iterative Approach
Bringing robotics technology to a warehouse is not an “all or nothing” process. It should be approached iteratively, starting with what can quickly prove the value of the technology without too much complexity.
As a part of our operational services, K2S offers a complimentary Warehouse Operational Audit to assist customers in deciding the best approach to take.
- Understand and Plan for the RaaS Model
The RaaS mode (Robots as a Service) is becoming industry standard and has made iterative entry into the robotics space easy. In this model, robotics companies provide customers with machines through a lease arrangement. Typically there’s a one-time setup cost, then the machines, their implementation, and ongoing programming and maintenance are all offered for a monthly fee. The robots operate on their own networks, so existing Wi-Fi and data infrastructure of the warehouse is not affected.
This low-risk model shields customers from overcommitting as they enter a brand new space. It also enables teams to flex usage of the robots up and down according to slow and busy shipping seasons. And supply chain leaders gain the option of filing the expenditure under OpEx rather than CapEx.
- Define Success Criteria and KPIs
The real proof of value of these implementations comes in tying efficiency gains in the warehouse back to the overall goals of the business. The aforementioned WMS integration into your company’s ERP will be critical here. But many supply chain leaders struggle to maintain an accurate view into warehouse performance data as they scale their quantity of WMS integrations. And they’re unclear how and when to measure results.
K2S experts can help your team gauge how quickly to expect results, and how to know if the implementation is (or isn’t) working as expected.
Modern WMS Integrations to Explore
The team at K2S has helped several clients deploy cutting-edge robotic technologies in their warehouses. We’re constantly evaluating new applications to make the best recommendations for our clients. Here are some examples of modern implementations we’ve led for clients. Most of these implementations followed the best practices noted above - they were iterative, measurable, and leveraged the RaaS model.
- AMRs (Autonomous Mobile Robots) - using the logistics optimization software by Locus, companies can improve last mile decision making with route optimization, live tracking, and efficient resource utilization across multiple fulfillment channels and models.
K2S recently worked with an eCommerce warehouse that was previously running all picking manually by humans on foot. They didn’t have a conveyor line or the infrastructure to support a conveyor line - but the layout of the warehouse was such that robots and humans could work alongside each other. K2S guided the team through their first implementation of AMRs, adding Locus bots to the picking process alongside the current warehouse staff. The Locus models that were chosen had a simple system integration that required minimal site build and little capital investment. The value-add was immediate and through the RaaS model, didn’t require a significant budget. The implementation increased the warehouse’s YoY Units per Hour by 64%; and their total annual units shipped increased by 74%.
- ASRS (Automated Storage and Retrieval System) - Using Knapp’s ASRS system that leverages a shuttle to pick, and put-away product in an ultra-condensed space so as to maximize space utilization while maintaining top speed and accuracy.
K2S is actively engaged with a client implementing the Knapp shuttles for their second retail warehouse after a successful first implementation. During the first implementation, the Retail DC was able to provide faster deliveries to their stores, replacing weekly sales before the following weekend. The shuttle system by Knapp allowed for improved service to stores with speed and increased accuracy, lowered labor costs by ~$5M per year and dramatically reduced the dependencies on labor workforce during peak seasons. The total throughput is expected to be increased by close to 2.5 million units per week with the implementation of Knapp in the second Distribution Center as well.
- RPW (Robotic Put Walls) - A robotic putwall picks items out of mixed-SKU containers or totes, scans them, and places them into the desired cubby/location.
The K2S team recently worked with a client that was doing an RPW pilot project for their Direct to Consumer (DotCom) facility. The client had significant human labor in the putting step of their supply chain. Each of the 400 put walls at their existing distribution centers required a human to sort, pick and put items into cubbies. As a part of this pilot, two Berkshire Grey automated put walls were installed and integrated into their existing Picking Systems and WMS. The pilot proved to be a success and it helped eliminate repeatable and redundant tasks so the labor could be repurposed for more value added services.
To relieve pressures of reducing costs and moving product fast, leading supply chain teams must look to the next generation of WMS integrations. If done right and measured effectively, a new wave of robotics technology can streamline the operations of your warehouse and show tangible impact right away.
The K2S warehouse operational services team is available for a complimentary warehouse audit, to help you understand the best way to implement robotics into your own warehouse.
Get in touch with us here!