The Dynamic Capabilities of an Automated Material Handling System

What does it mean to be dynamic? In our context of engineering and material handling, “dynamic” is defined as “an interactive system or process, especially one involving competing or conflicting forces.”

In today’s world, you may be dealing with pallet, case, or split case orders…or any combination of the three. Some orders may have special requirements, like gift-wrapping or personalization. And to top it all off, you have zero time to waste – you have to get those orders out the door faster than your competitor. A dynamic material handling system – one that keeps things moving at a constant pace and can quickly change to meet your current demands – can help you succeed.

When we design an automated material handling system, we group dynamic capabilities into three categories: order release, order carton or tote routing and management of high speed equipment for final order sortation and packing. In each case, multiple variables (forces) are considered by the system, with the goal of maximizing system capacity and productivity.

Due to the poor integration of order release processes, many companies spend millions of dollars on automated equipment, only to see less-than-expected productivity. Most automated material handling systems are fully integrated with a warehouse management system (WMS) and many of the advanced WMS packages use multiple variables for order release and wave creation, such as overall workload, resource availability, order mix, inventory allocation, truck route planning, order consolidation or pack station capacity, and forward pick capacity. While all of these variables are important to general warehouse productivity, they often don’t get to the heart of a system’s overall capabilities.

We use an order release which augments and improves upon the WMS order release process. This software module contains additional functionality that ensures the system operates at maximum productivity. Some examples of this functionality include:

Grouping and releasing order types based on system capacity for the different types of orders Grouping and releasing orders based on zone capacity, with the goal of maintaining an equal amount of work in all zones

Releasing line items to an automated material handling system based on the processing time of different orders in different zones

In automated material handling systems, it is fairly common to see a problem in a single pick zone that bottlenecks an entire system. This bottleneck problem is often addressed with a large amount of buffer capacity in each zone or before final sortation.

We take a different approach using dynamic order routing. Routing decisions are made at the last possible moment and take into account zone capacity availability, expected order completion time, order priority, wave status, and other site configurable variables. System capacity is maintained and zone labor productivity is maximized, all without losing sight of crucial operating metrics like timely order completion.

Tom Coyne is CEO of Lewiston, ME-based Diamond Phoenix, a material handling services provider.

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