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Warehouse Data Collection Automation projects – things to keep in mind


TOUGH NUT TO CRACK

Warehouse Data Collection Automation is a topic that has been discussed many times before. There have been articles, blog posts, and white papers. There are still many businesses that try to figure out how to optimize warehouse and automate data collection. Just read any ERP user group, and sometimes close to a quarter of all posts is going to be related to the topic of logistical tracking, automation, and data collection. That is because up to this day the ways to efficiently track inventory in the warehouse is something of a dream for many. Bar coding was invented in mid 70s, and RFID Gen 2 was ratified in 2004, yet up to this day many distributors are still using pen and paper to keep the inventory in check. And those that have data collection systems already implemented many times see big inefficiencies built into them. 

OVERCOMING THE ODDS

I’ve been helping my customers to solve the puzzle of warehouse data collection for many years. In my opinion, there are 3 obstacles that prevent businesses from implementing the perfect data collection system. Those obstacles are human innercia, budget, and lack of expert advice. As an IT professional in the area of Warehouse Data Collection automation, those 3 things are what I always keep in the back of my mind, whether I talk to the prospect, go into the BRS stage of the project, or going over UAT with the customer.  

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HUMAN FACTOR

Human innercia, otherwise known as “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is one of the monumental stumbling blocks, probably the biggest hurdle that a company has to overcome. Not only is it a showstopper for many firms at the initial investigation stage of the project, but it’s also very often a beast that kills the ongoing implementation project right at the finish line. From my personal experience in this industry, it is a number one risk factor in an implementation project of that kind. Unless organization has one or more motivated individuals that have a personal stake in success of such a project, it is very difficult to implement a warehouse data collection system successfully.

BUDGET

As one famous movie character states “It’s always about money, Lebowski”. Budget is always something that has to be set aside for an automation project. Recently, though, as prices for everything hardware and software keep coming down, it is becoming easier to overcome this particular barrier. Nowadays everything from the scanners, handheld computers, and mobile networking equipment to labels and RFID printers costs just one third of what it was 5 to 7 years ago. Existing software systems are getting more affordable too as development tools get more sophisticated, powerful, and easier to use. All of this plays a big part in the final ROI calculations, making the prospects of Warehouse Data Collection Automation more and more appealing idea.  

EXPERTISE

The final hurdle of this trifecta is expertise. The expertise to select the right technology, determine the proper approach and identify which business processes to adjust is crucial. For enterprises looking to implement a solution in their own warehouse, it is obviously a critical point to find the right partner. And for the partners, for those IT Consulting and Development firms like ours, it is not only important to stay on the top of technological wave, but also to take lessons learned from each previous project and apply them to the next. Compromising on this part of the equation will often lead to less optimal solution at the end and, as a result, revisiting the project all over again at a later time.

Often these types of projects involve multiple IT vendors to accomplish correct solutions as well as proper integration into existing systems. Experienced consulting firm with the skilled project manager is what’s often needed to bring all of the pieces together and make sure they fit.

SMOOTH ROLLOUT

Ok, so now we have all the obstacles identified and handled!

  • Buy-in from the warehouse staff is secured, people are excited and ready to go.
  • Budget has been set aside and we’ve already purchased the right hardware and software
  • Experienced partner has been found and they’ve developed integration to cover the business needs.

We are ready for “go live” and … and this is where things can go wrong yet again. Worst yet, we do not even expect things to go wrong at this particular stage of the game. I’m hot even referring to the situation where we thought we needed “A”, but it turns out that we actually needed “B”. I’m talking about the scenario where small issues with training or little quirks missed in the QA phase grow into bigger issues when not handled right away. Good will of your warehouse staff turns into a sour mood in a very short while when not addressed right away. Small problems with integration get compounded by days of operation when they go unnoticed.

At this state it is critical to be diligent, persistent, and to have an upper management that insists on the successful implementation as the only possible outcome of the project. This one last component is what often makes the recipe work, and the absence of it may be the one thing that kills otherwise a successful rollout. It goes back to the human factor outlined above, yet it is bigger than that and often is underappreciated by IT consultants. It seems very obvious, but frequently it is the one thing missing from the equation. Remembering this, and working on maintaining the upper management’s buy-in will be the difference between just statistics and the success story you can brag about on your company’s website.

IN CONCLUSION

Automating data collection in a warehouse is very much possible. Whether or not you’re thinking of implementing this solution in your own business or reading this because you have a client whom you need to help with the problem, you can achieve success. But it will pay you to remember that success in this case does require overcoming those pains of change, pains of growth. And you need to make certain that you do have a commitment from all parties involved to be successful at the end. IT consulting providers as well as the end users of the warehouse automation solution need to understand that the challenge is only 25% technical. The much bigger part of the puzzle has nothing to do with computer systems and have everything to do with people, those who are responsible for implementing the platform and those using it every single day.

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