Mention systems integration and materials handling projects to anyone involved in the warehousing and logistics industry and the chances are they will immediately think of large sheds with equally large price tags. Whilst this may be an understandable and, in some cases, realistic view to hold, the reality is that there are many small and medium sized sites where state of the art multi-product systems are delivering significant financial and operational efficiencies.
However, for any multi-product project to be successful and this goes for all applications, regardless of their size it is essential to choose a system provider capable of integrating a range of solutions. Only if the user companys project partner has access to a varied product portfolio that allows manual, semi-automated or fully automated systems to be considered and, ultimately, specified, will optimum efficiency stand any chance of being achieved.
Material handling systems integration is, by definition, the bringing together of multiple technologies in an interconnected system and delivering successful integrated projects (regardless of every size) demands expertise across a whole spectrum of materials handling equipment - including forklift trucks, very narrow aisle (VNA) equipment, stacker cranes and racking as well as conveyors, warehouse management systems (WMS) and automated guided vehicles.
But too often, it seems, multi-product systems are designed around the limited range of equipment that the supplier is able to offer and so, instead of ending up with a an integrated facility that suits the goods stored and the pick and product flow rates required, users get something that has been planned primarily to accommodate the very restricted collection of handling equipment that their supplier has to offer.
Down the years I have visited numerous sites where, on the advice of a systems integrator, companies have dramatically mis-specified their handling system. I have seen highly automated systems perform far less efficiently than a traditional manual system ever would and conversely, been to sites bristling with lift trucks where a semi-automated or even fully automated system would have increased efficiency and throughput and lowered operating costs ten-fold.
In the region of 20 per cent of Jungheinrichs turnover (which, this year, is expected to top two billion euro) comes from multi-product projects and systems integration. Having a wide range of products from pallet trucks to racking in the marketplace has certainly contributed to our success, but products alone do not automatically guarantee the most efficient or optimised solution.
To ensure that the most appropriate system is provided, integrators need to develop a thorough understanding of the client companys business process and supply chain demands not only as they are now, but also as they will be in the future. Indeed, taking a project conception through design and feasibility studies and on to detailed design, implementation and project management with CDM, really does require clear thinking and a competence-based approach from the integrator.
It also requires something of a leap of faith on the clients part as being part of a project management team charged with overseeing the installation of a turnkey handling system can be a nerve-shredding experience for any logistics or supply chain professional.
But customers quickly gain confidence in a project team that can demonstrate a high degree of flexibility and expertise and, personally, I have always considered seeing a client start to relax as it becomes clear that the end solution that he or she has been instrumental in specifying will meet their precise requirements, to be an extremely rewarding part of my job.
Going forward, it is clear that with high calibre warehouse labour still an expensive and often surprisingly scarce commodity, more and more companies will conclude that automating those parts of the warehousing operation that follow a predictable pattern makes a lot of sense. In light of this Jungheinrich is designing an increasing number of mini-load systems capable of increasing pick rates without increasing the cost per pick, freeing up labour for parts of the order picking operation where selectivity is more important.
There can be little doubt, that warehouse design is going to have to be less rigid and third party logistics service providers in particular will have to take a flexible approach if they are to remain successful. Increasingly Jungheinrich are working with a range of clients whose materials handling and order picking equipment needs change throughout the term of even the shortest contracts as their clients react to the constantly fluctuating demands of consumers.
Clearly the dramatic rise in internet shopping has forced many retailers and their logistics service providers into a fundamental rethink of their warehouse design. Faced with falling distribution volumes but increasing order frequencies, the ability to flex picking cycles and prioritise urgent orders is critical to winning on-line customers. Retailers with standard warehouse installations will be left scratching their heads and wondering where they went wrong as more and more of their sales come from internet-savvy consumers who insist on next day delivery of single item orders and, as a result, traditional bulk stores are giving way to facilities with greater numbers of picking faces and increased picking efficiencies.
Given the many and varied challenges faced by the modern warehouse sector, it would appear less likely than ever that a users expectations will be fulfilled by turnkey systems providers who, thanks to their own limited product offerings, attempt to shoe-horn a handling operation into a one-size fits all system.