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Automating the Growing Warehouse: From Spreadsheets to Daily Processes & Beyond

For smaller warehouse facilities, the word “automation” conjures visions of massive machinery projects, huge capital expenses, and radical business process overhauls. However, automation can, and often does, start on a much smaller scale.

Automation can start from something as simple as using spreadsheets to track inventory, personnel, or shipments. However, as a facility begins to grow, product traceability and staff efficiency become driving forces behind increased automation, requiring a slightly larger automation initiative. This is where facilities of any size would benefit from using a warehouse execution system (WES) to manage their processes.

A WES includes a tightly integrated warehouse management system (WMS) and warehouse control system (WCS) that help manufacturers and distributors direct, control and optimize internal material flow and order picking. This two-in-one solution performs the tasks of both systems through a single interface.

Why a WES?

A WES gives warehouse staff the option to begin automation on a smaller scale with the WMS' warehouse inventory tracking control functions. When the company is ready to expand its automation initiatives, the WES helps automate repetitive tasks through integration with ERP, billing or ordering systems. Automating these tasks increases staff efficiency and prepares the facility for future growth.

With its modular capability, a WES enables companies of any size to use only the functions they need to handle their warehousing processes. This could be anything from managing invoices and tracking inventory to fully automating the warehouse with an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS). And, instead of purchasing new software when you add new pieces of automation, you simply turn on the WCS features within the WES that you need to manage these new processes.

Further, by using a WES for warehouse management tasks, staff become familiar with the software and its functionality. Then, as more automation is added to a facility using the warehouse control functions, staff can focus on using the equipment and adopting any new automation into day-to-day processes instead of learning new software.

Planning for the long term

Developing a long-term automation plan starts with taking a good look at your business today and determining what you want it to look like three to five years from now. From there, you can create a plan and choose which solution will help you achieve these goals.

When determining what automation to employ now versus five years down the road, it's essential to consider your goals for inventory management, process management, and warehouse management. Depending on the complexity of your goals, this plan can take six months or two years to fully evolve. This is why finding an experienced technology partner with the resources to support your long-term automation goals is important.

Finding the right partner

When selecting a WES, most companies know to evaluate each solution's functionality to make sure it meets current and future business needs. However, it is also important to look at the after-sales support for the WES. Is the vendor going to disappear once you purchase the product, “unless you need something?” Or will their staff develop a real partnership with your team?

A technology partner will sit down with you and take the time to understand your business and goals. With this insight, and the knowledge of its own system, the vendor should create a solution and processes specifically for your facility.

Automation isn't just for large warehouses and large-scale machinery projects. Facilities of any size can start automation on a small scale with a WES. Then, as your company adds new automation, this slow progression allows it to advance these initiatives with little to no resistance from staff because they only have to learn a new functionality in a program that they use every day. With a smooth adoption of new automation, distributors can easily optimize internal material flow and order picking to ensure product traceability, increase staff efficiency, and save money.

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