Faster, simpler and more affordable, middleware is a game changer for the industry says Renovotec managing director Richard Gilliard
Middleware is not yet widely used in the warehousing and logistics environment but interest in it is growing, especially in senior management circles where IT habits (supplier relationships, for example) are less important than boosting warehouse productivity, affordably.
Supply chain middleware is an enabler: smart software that sits between existing company systems such as WMS and ERP and the data-capture, warehouse productivity boosting applications that it enables such as scanning and voice – frequently running on rugged hardware.
However many users looking to their incumbent systems supplier to provide new warehouse applications software have found the cost of custom development prohibitive.
As a result it is estimated that more than half the companies in this position have put off a move that would have boosted their productivity. But by how much? Industry claims for the impact of data-capture technology on warehouse productivity vary widely (and can tend to extravagance) so it may be more helpful to draw on feedback from users who have deployed middleware.
Increases warehouse productivity by 25%
Although the technology is quite new to the market, typical productivity increases of over 25% are already being reported. Return on middleware investment is also rapid, for two reasons. Firstly the cost can be up to 70% lower than that of custom solutions, depending on project scale and complexity; and secondly middleware deployment is much faster, taking weeks rather than the months typically needed for the development and installation of custom solutions.
Middleware is an out-of-the-box solution with pre-loaded, packaged software that simply interfaces to an existing ERP or WMS to deliver a working system that can drive multiple devices and workflows; including goods in/receiving, put-away, replenishing, stock movement, dispatch/loading, stock counts/inventory checking and picking.
The system enables warehouse inventory traceability at every stage, and KPI (key performance indicator) reporting – including warehouse staff performance – presented on graphical dashboards.
Around 70% of companies that use barcode technology still do so in an older, so-called ‘green screen’ operating environment. Many would like to modernise but have found upgrade costs prohibitive.
Middleware enables users to update their IT environment, more quickly and less expensively. Transitioning to a middleware-enabled and modern Android, touchscreen-operated system can transform warehouse operations, allowing warehouse workers to become more productive, and to do so in a more user-friendly computing environment.
A case in point: Henry Colbeck picks a winner
Founded in 1893, Henry Colbeck is the oldest independent supplier to the UK fish and chip market, providing a minimum twice-weekly food and packaging, frozen and ambient product delivery service to the majority of its 2,500 customers, nationally.
To support its continuing growth the company decided to fully automate its 12,000 units-per-day, all-paper picking process across its two-site warehouse operation, which totals 70,000 square feet and is serviced by a mix of 27 Henry Colbeck wagons and third party logistics carriers.
The company was achieving 99.92% picking accuracy but wanted to speed up its pick-rate to increase productivity. Following some market research Henry Colbeck chose a voice-picking system powered by middleware.
What has been the impact to date?
“Our analysis shows a significant increase in both the items and tonnage picked per hour” says company financial director Paul Holliday. A snapshot voice performance sample revealed that the tonnage per hour was 29% higher.
Staff training on Henry Colbeck’s middleware-powered voice picking system has been helped by the intuitive nature of the voice system which directs warehouse staff to the right picking location. “It saves time by guiding our people round the warehouse, paper-free” Paul Holliday says. “Once our team saw how it benefited them we had their buy-in.”
Commenting on the graphical dashboard that monitors users’ picking performance Paul Holliday says: “It helps us to identify, measure and manage the actual pick rates of individual users: who has picked what, how much time they have spent at each pick face and how long it has taken them to walk between locations. In effect it gives you a picking league table.”
Importantly the same management tool allows the company to identify which items are picked more often, and from which pick faces, allowing it to optimise the layout of the warehouse.