Oct 11, 2022 / BY microlistics

The evolution of warehouse management – from spreadsheets to paper processes, all the way to robots

Warehouse management has come a long way since the 1980s in the early days of Warehouse Management Systems (WMS). Even today there are different levels of WMS complexity that manage the inventory and fulfillment for simple storerooms through to million+ square meter facilities. They leverage spreadsheets, paper-based processes, all the way to the most advanced fully automated, robotic dark stores.

By looking at the evolution of warehouse management and key innovations over the years, warehouses can identify enhancements to their own warehouse operation evolution to realize higher efficiencies. Starting with table-stake enhancements, moving to more complex system-generated task management optimizations like putaway, zone hierarchies, wave and batch picking, and load management, and culminating with future-forward upgrades like integrated material handling equipment, automated storage and retrieval, and autonomous robotics.

We recently rolled out robotic pallet trucks at one of our long-term customer warehouses, an Australian-based importer, distributor, and co-manufacturer of food products who realized a nearly 10x throughput increase in pallet moves per day. Its warehouse evolution over the past decade-and-a-half follows closely with the evolution of warehouse management.

The early years and legacy systems

At the lower end of the complexity range are storerooms and spreadsheets. While it’s rare to run into a warehouse with Excel-based management, it is not uncommon for some warehouses to manage elements of their operation from spreadsheets.

As the size of the warehouse expands, so too do the number of places to store items. Putaway and picking processes instructing users where to put product away and from where to pick it were some of the early system-generated tasks incorporated into warehouse management. Often with some rudimentary logic and business rules. These instructions are provided to operators through printed instructions. Less common nowadays, but it is not unheard of for a warehouse to rely on paper processing, usually for non-standard processes, when there are connectivity issues, or for redundancy.

When we first started working with the food warehouse above, they were very much paper-based with integration to their ERP system. The initial Microlistics WMS implementation was triggered by the need for quality control and an audit trail. As a food handler importing goods in bulk quantities and splitting them into thousands or even millions of packages, it was critical to adhere to a dedicated inspection process by Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS). It needed to be controlled through a systematic approach to avoid errors and the risk of contamination.

Modern systems today

In most warehouses today, handheld devices with RF connectivity have replaced paper instructions, allowing for real-time instructions along with barcode scanning for accuracy validation to prove the right product at the right quantity was picked or putaway.

One of the big evolutions in complexity has been automated decisions driving resource optimization. Business rules engines provide the decision making for these processes. Handing over the sequences of activities and validations to the system compared to an operator following their training, manual processes, or paper-based instructions. These instructions might include conveyors, forklifts, pallet jacks, and pick carts in the internal movement of products within warehouse.

With a more modern WMS in place, our food warehouse expanded its business to include co-manufacturing packaged foods for grocery store brands through system-generated tasks that move raw materials to production lines. Additionally, the system managed work in progress through to finished goods, the put back of unfinished raw goods, and the re-receipt of finished goods into stock or cross-docked to a customer order.

The future of warehouse management is here

When it comes to human operators, still at the forefront of warehouse operations, handheld devices now allow for voice recognition – eliminating the need for keystrokes and reducing manual data entry errors. In addition, Wearable technologies enable pick-by-voice and pick-by-vision to further augment human performance to near bionic levels.

Integrating warehouse management with material handling equipment is also taking productivity to the next level. Old-school conveyors and vertical carousels are being fitted with scanners to make decisions based on scanned products. Likewise, manually operated forklifts, turret trucks, and pallet jacks are giving way to Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGV).

There are different levels of automation, but all will involve the WMS communicating instructions to the Warehouse Control System (WCS) that relays the move to the automated equipment. Typically, there will be some human involvement. One of the barriers to full automation in a warehouse has been the interaction between humans and robots. A lot of space is needed for this to happen safely.

If a specific activity can be closed off from the rest of the warehouse, if can be fully automated. A successful example would be Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) in a closed cage of racking that is able to pull pallets and drop them where humans can act. Another example is Automatic Guided Vehicle (AGV) that travel along a wire running under the concrete warehouse floor. To ensure safety, the AGV cannot come off that track; when they detect objects in front of them, they simply stop—in both cases, freeing up human resources for higher-value tasks.

The next evolution of robotic material handling is Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) that can understand and move through their environment safely without oversight. This opens true dark warehousing where humans provide only monitoring.

Our food warehouse customer has continued to evolve, grow, and expand over the years. Their most recent evolution is a hybrid human and robotic solution with AGV pallet trucks. A warehouse worker operates a turret truck within narrow aisles, bringing a pallet to the end where it can be picked up by the AGV. The AGV ferries the pallets to a double-sided rack where it can be handled by another warehouse working. The entirely manual process allowed for 100 to 150 pallet moves per day. The new process has increased pallet moves from 800 to 1,500 per day.

Read more about how Microlistics WMS can power the evolution of your warehouse management to higher efficiencies and productivity. Request a demonstration to see it in action.

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