Let’s say, you’re starting to plan a material-handling project, which looks as if it will have some conveyor, scanners, a pick-to-light area, a couple of label printers and other miscellaneous equipment. The system also must interface with your existing warehouse management system, enterprise resource planning, or host system.
The integration can be done in one of three ways: you can do it yourself, you can tell the hardware supplier that has the most content that they are the systems integrator, or you can hire a company that specializes in systems integration. Which way should you go?
This is never an easy question to answer. It’s always tempting to do your own integration. After all, how hard can it be? You already know what the system should do – it’s just a matter of getting everything installed in the right order. And if you don’t have the time to do it, the hardware manufacturer will have a project manager that can take care of it.
But there is a lot to consider here than just installing everything in the correct order.
At the start of a project, you need to determine that the system you’re installing will in fact be capable of producing the results you require. This is an important step and one that is often overlooked.
Next, you need to be sure that your data is being examined correctly. What is the velocity of each SKU? What is the cube of each SKU? What are the special handling requirements for each SKU by unit of measure (pallet, case, inner pack, and each)? What does the order profile look like for each unit of measure?
Once the SKU data is known, the mechanical portion of the material handling system is designed. Remember when you determined that you would have some conveyor, a pick to light area, and so on? If you use a systems integrator, they become responsible for ensuring that the mechanical portion of the system functions correctly with the material you are trying to move in the facility.
You now need to determine the business rules that affect the system. For example, do orders have to ship complete? Must orders maintain line item integrity when they are loaded on the trucks/pallets? What are the transactions that need to be sent to the host? Are there lot requirements? Are there QC requirements?
The list of business rules can be long and may take numerous interviews to complete. But again, if you have a systems integrator, it is up to them to make sure all of the correct questions are asked. The integrator then takes one last look at the mechanical design of the material handling system to ensure that it still functions correctly in accordance with these rules.
The system is now designed and all that is left to do is issue purchase orders, right? Not quite. There is still work to be done to determine how to make each component of the system function as part of an integrated material handling system.
The integrator works with all of the different controls and software groups that are involved and ensures that each party clearly understands their scope and responsibilities in the project. The integrator also has the final say in which system or systems a given function resides.
From this point until the end of the project, the integrator provides traditional project management functions and coordinates the installation and commissioning of all of the equipment. Finally, the integrator tests all aspects of the system to make sure it meets the requirements and business rules that were outlined at the beginning of the project.
Steve Lankford is vice president of software engineering and controls for Lewiston, ME-based Diamond Phoenix, a material handling provider.