Wise up to warehouse systems

2 Nov 2005

Small firms need to rethink their approach to logistics and take a long hard look at their warehouse operations. That was the message from John Mee, supply chain director at Hy-Tech Logistics, to delegates at last week’s Gs1 conference on supply chain management.

From his experience at the coalface he believed SMEs were slow to grasp new technologies that could enable greater efficiencies and substantial cost savings. He focused on warehouse management systems (WMS) in particular, arguing that it was not hard to justify the investment for what he said was a crucial component in any supply chain. The real challenge was getting firms to change their processes.

“I see huge paper-laden trails flowing through the distribution process,” he told siliconrepublic.com. “SMEs are a little blinkered and uneducated; sometimes they tend to operate in a business silo and don’t see the connectivity forwards and backwards. They don’t always understand what optimal supply chain management is about. That’s where GS1 comes in, helping educate them.”

GS1, the body that established a new global standard governing the transmission of data between RFID tags and readers back in February, used the conference to increase awareness of fast-emerging technologies that are not always embraced in Ireland.

In a brief history of supply chain solutions, Mee talked of the evolution of warehouse IT tools that started life as stock control modules on enterprise resource planning systems – a one-size-fits-all approach that suffered high levels of inaccuracy. This evolved into a software explosion around point solutions that increased the speed at which goods moved through the warehouse. The problem was that they were off-the-shelf packages and hard to customise.

Today Hy-Tec Logistics sells and deploys systems that are customised to meet customers’ needs with components personalised for individual operators, enabling more efficient control of complex environments. “Nowadays it’s better to talk about a supply network than a chain – it shouldn’t be linear,” he explained. “Vertical and lateral movement of information is very important; it’s about having systems that deal with the complexity of the different flows around a warehouse.”

He identified these “flows” as physical materials, information and financial data. “With all this going on, firms have to have appropriate controlling technology,” he warned, taking time to refute the idea that such systems were ‘big boys’ toys’.

He made a compelling case for savings that could be enjoyed by small firms, painting a picture of forklift drivers struggling to find a place for their pallets and operators keying in mistakes that could cost the company thousands.

Automation that takes out the data-entry clerk, barcodes for order track and trace and a general drive to increased connectivity and greater visibility were presented as core benefits of WMS.

Jim Bracken, director of GS1 Ireland, said SME adoption of supply chain technologies was a problem across Europe but remained optimistic that it would increase, largely driven by retailers that will expect their suppliers to follow them into more efficient processes.

Pictured: John Mee, supply chain director at Hy-Tech Logistics

By Ian Campbell