Supermarkets are looking at fresh ways to make warehouse management systems even more advantageous by adding new functions that more accurately measure productivity and boost efficiency.
These new features focus on being able to more precisely predict how much time it will take a worker to perform a particular task. Some are even taking these expectations a step further, setting up standards based on an individual's achievements.
In addition, incorporating radio frequency and voice-recognition communications technology, for functions such as directing forklift movements and order picking, is moving many warehouses closer to a paperless, real-time operating environment.
Retailers told SN that newer versions of warehouse management software provide for greater levels of detail. For example, some systems allow managers to calculate how long it should take a forklift driver to move a pallet from one area to another, based on the number of right and left turns, weight, speed and other factors.
Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, is one of the supermarkets upgrading its warehouse management systems.
The new warehouse management system is based on radio frequency technology. Minyard's previous warehouse management system was developed by its in-house programming staff.
"No doubt the biggest plus [of an RF-based warehouse management system] is its ability to control the workload of the forklift drivers," said Joe Sealey, vice president of distribution at Minyard. "It is hard to tell if a forklift driver is busy because he can ride around the floor all day with the same load on his forklift."
Using the warehouse management system, Minyard has begun to implement engineered labor standards for forklift drivers and order pickers, and will eventually have productivity standards for all warehouse employees.
"We know that a forklift driver is supposed to be pulling 236 cases of baby food an hour," he said as an example.
Sealey said that eventually the warehouse management system will enable Minyard to implement cross docking. "We will be able to use this information to establish a work routine that will allow us to get product in and out of the warehouse more efficiently," he said.
Minyard is also looking at voice-activated technology, which the retailer expects to implement further down the road.
"Can you imagine if an order picker never had to touch a piece of paper?" Sealey said. "This [technology] would eliminate the printing of pick documents and pick labels. When an order picker was through with a job, they wouldn't have to leave the floor to hand in their paperwork and get the next assignment."
Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, is also looking to implement voice-activated technology in the next two years.
"People tend to focus on radio frequency technology as the key way of improving efficiency, but I think there is a great deal of potential in voice-activated systems," said Howard Levy, manager of distribution systems at Hannaford Bros.
With a voice-activated system, Levy said, the problem of misreading labels and order sheets would be eliminated. "I believe it would improve the efficiency of the selection process tremendously," he said.
"Our vision at Hannaford is to have all aspects of our warehouse management -- including receiving and order picking -- done in a paperless fashion," Levy said.
Levy said Hannaford is moving toward a real-time warehouse management system, where the system is updated as each item is picked, as opposed to a batch system where the data is updated periodically.
"The closer you are to a real-time system, the greater the efficiency," he said.
At Federal Wholesale Group, Aurora, Ohio, the focus is on refining individual productivity standards.
This summer Federal Wholesale is installing a new version of warehouse management software that will enable it to develop individualized productivity goals.
Federal Wholesale has been using warehouse management software for about two years to automate a 270,000-square-foot distribution center, which serves about 5,000 retail outlets including grocery stores and mass merchandisers.
"We have gained about 40% in productivity over last year, and we are looking to build on those numbers," said Tony Lammers, chief operating officer at Federal Wholesale. "In addition, warehouse management software has given Federal the ability to monitor our inventory accuracy and our order picker accuracy."
The new version of the software will allow the wholesaler to set standards for each worker based on previous productivity history.
"We have been able to track productivity with the previous version, but we haven't been able to use that information to set standards for each worker," he said.
Lammers said that by implementing individualized standards, the wholesaler will be able to set realistic goals and more accurately predict how much work can be accomplished.