Technologies for the warehousing and distribution center environment have progressed more in the past 10 years than they did in the previous 30 years, and new options are emerging virtually every day. Today companies that operate warehouses and distribution centers can choose from a vast array of advanced technologies and equipment solutions that promise to deliver attractive productivity benefits. These new technologies—from automatic pallet-wrapping machines to remotely controlled material handling equipment, and everything in between—can deliver tangible benefits, but most require substantial financial investments.
Few organizations have any margin for error when making decisions about new technology and equipment; competitively, one wrong investment decision can erase an operational advantage. Yet many investments in technology and equipment eventually fail to deliver the promised gains. One reason why this happens is that vendors' initial estimates of cost and productivity benefits often are based on a "best case" scenario. Those estimates often prove to be inaccurate, because each facility has unique physical, process, and data constraints, and it can be difficult to determine beforehand what a technology or piece of equipment could accomplish in a particular environment.
Moreover, the "cool factor" of new technology and the complexity of operations can distract decision makers from taking all the steps necessary to understand exactly what an investment will mean to the balance sheet. Most continue to take a high-level approach to evaluating the potential impact, using broad assumptions to estimate future performance and often failing to factor in support and maintenance requirements. Further complicating matters is the fact that vendors often do not have the opportunity to dig into the details of individual operations—an exercise that is necessary if they are to accurately quantify the benefit for a prospective customer. As a result, they use best-case examples, developed under ideal conditions, to promote their products.
Before any company commits to a large capital investment, it should have a realistic view of the cost savings to be gained from the new technology or equipment, as well as the likely impact it will have on operations. Instead of a best-case scenario, an "engineered" approach is a more effective method for evaluating potential capital investments. An engineered approach entails studying the current-state operations at a "micro" or elemental level (similar to the approach engineers use when creating engineered labor standards) and pinpointing the specific elements that will be affected by introducing a new technology. The degree to which each element will be affected can then be assessed using common work-study techniques and/or realistic estimates made by subject-matter experts.
In short, an engineered approach to evaluating new technology or equipment predicts the outcome that a future labor standard will require, which correlates directly to the labor savings one could expect from the technology. This approach develops a savings estimate that reflects the reality of a particular facility and operations—thereby improving a company's insight into the bottom-line impacts of cost-saving initiatives and reducing the potential for costly mistakes.
Consider the operational impact
Prior to embarking on any evaluation of new equipment or technology for warehouses and distribution centers, it is critical to have a true understanding of current operational performance, from receiving through shipping. With that information in hand, a company will be able to make the accurate "before and after" comparisons an engineered approach provides.
The first step of an engineered approach is to identify the specific aspects of an operation the company is targeting for improvement, and how each will change—for better or for worse—as a result of introducing new technology or equipment. Sometimes a vendor may include those specifics in its sales pitch, but most of the time someone who has the necessary expertise and is intimately familiar with the operation will have to pinpoint exactly what will change.
It is very rare for a large capital investment to have only positive impacts on an isolated aspect of an operation. For example, an automatic pallet-wrapping machine may reduce the wrap time per pallet but increase the amount of time that it takes to prepare the pallets to be wrapped. Remote-assisted material handling equipment may expedite the order-picking process by reducing the number of steps required, but it also introduces delays while the operator waits for the equipment to respond to the system's commands.
The next step is to consider how the introduction of new technology will impact other areas of the operation—both upstream and downstream processes, as well as maintenance and support functions—if at all. Consider the example of the automatic pallet-wrapping machine mentioned earlier. The machine may in fact wrap pallets more efficiently than a person could do manually. Automation could, however, create a bottleneck in the pre-wrap staging operations. If studies indicate that upstream bottlenecks would be introduced as personnel wait to utilize the equipment, then the buyer must evaluate how many units it would need to purchase in order to prevent those delays.
Another important consideration is the impact the solution may have on a facility's physical layout and traffic patterns. Some questions that must be answered include:
In addition, it is important to understand the degree of reliability the new solution must have and the maintenance that will be needed to support the new solution. Many people fail to consider that certain skills will be required and costs will be associated with maintaining the equipment or defining alternate procedures to continue operations during machine downtime and maintenance. These are just a few examples of the types of considerations that are often overlooked or omitted in the sales and business-case evaluation process used by most buyers.
Baseline versus future state
Once the buyer understands the potential impact of a new technology or piece of equipment, it is important to gather a baseline value (often measured in time when it comes to labor savings) for each step of the task that is being examined. Each step should be broken into smaller steps called elements. Elements that will be unaffected by the new technology can be ignored, which allows the buyer to isolate the true differences between the operation before and after the new technology or equipment has been implemented. There are various methods of collecting the times required to carry out each element, including stopwatch studies and predetermined time-and-motion studies. Companies can use information from their existing engineered labor standards to help them quantify the current environment, as long as the current standards are accurate and have been updated within the last 18 to 24 months. Those that do not have engineered standards in place can still follow this approach, but it requires a bit more data gathering beforehand.
It is important to understand how a new technology will affect the structure of engineered standards or incentive programs that are in place to manage the workforce. A company that does not intend to adjust its engineered labor standards or incentives to reflect the impact of a new technology is not likely to get a true picture of the anticipated savings, nor is it likely to achieve the benefits it expects.
With baseline information about the current state of operations in hand, the buyer can then project how each element would be affected after the new technology has been implemented. Under ideal circumstances, a potential buyer would introduce the equipment or technology into a facility, train individuals in how to employ it, and then study how it performs and what impact it has in the environment in which it would actually be used. Testing the equipment or technology at a facility can reveal unforeseen pitfalls and shortcomings as well as provide fact-based information for subsequent discussions with the vendor.
Because many equipment and technology capital investments are large and complex, it may not be possible to "test drive" them at a working facility. In such cases, simulation models can be valuable. When using simulation models, however, it is imperative to document all assumptions used, as they should form the framework for any conclusions drawn from the data.
After assessments of both the current and future-state values of the affected areas have been completed, the next step is to calculate the differences, and then apply them to the labor model and affected processes in order to determine the new equipment or technology's cost and productivity implications. (See the sidebar for a sample calculation.) Companies that have a labor management system with simulation capabilities can send actual work assignments through the future-state model and feel confident that they are accurately applying the frequencies of their key labor drivers, such as cases per location, cases per assignment, pallets per assignment, and percentage of walk travel versus ride travel. For those that do not have this capability, it is essential to look at as large a data sample as possible in order to be confident that the labor-driver assumptions reflect the long-term operational environment.
Once buyers have quantified the impacts of the new technology or equipment, it can be easy to "fall in love with the number." Since so much effort has been put into calculating an accurate savings projection, many executives want to immediately plug that number into a return on investment (ROI) model and begin translating the savings into dollars. But it is very important to consider factors that cannot be quantified in the model just described. Examples of questions to be asked include:
When such questions remain, it may be wise to take a more conservative approach to estimating future benefits.
An accurate projection of the savings to be gained from a capital investment can be an extremely valuable tool when negotiating with the vendor. Suppose that the equipment or technology under consideration fails to meet the required ROI. In that case, the buyer could identify a lower price that would keep the equipment or technology as a viable option. If there is no price flexibility, then the buyer could require the vendor to make modifications to the equipment to compensate for the ROI shortfall.
Benefits for both sides
An engineered approach to evaluating equipment and technology has benefits for both buyer and supplier. For distribution executives, having a realistic sense of the anticipated savings from a capital investment not only assists in decision making but can also provide substantial support for the business case required to secure investment funds. Moreover, it can provide valuable information for price negotiations. Equally important, it provides fact-based information that is specific to a particular operation—something that will help buyers avoid making poor capital investment decisions that could disrupt operations and negatively impact an organization's performance.
For vendors, the use of an engineered approach can improve the accuracy of ROI projections and increase their confidence that customers will be satisfied with the results of an implementation. Finally, this approach can help vendors identify potential problems and unique environmental characteristics before a technology or piece of equipment has been completely installed, providing the opportunity to customize or adapt the product while improving the odds of a win-win situation for both vendor and customer.
The management team of Company A's distribution center (DC) attended a trade show where an equipment vendor was showcasing a new electric pallet jack that automatically advances to its next location without the operator touching the controls. Company A's DC uses pallet jacks during order selection, which is the largest use of labor in the facility. The equipment vendor claims that its automatic pallet jack will improve productivity in order selection by up to 30 percent by eliminating the steps operators must take to return to the equipment controls, thus allowing them to walk directly to their next pick location.
When scaled to its facility, the 30-percent productivity improvement would represent a huge financial savings for Company A; even achieving one-third of that would be worth serious consideration. But before making a large capital expenditure, the company opted to take an engineered approach to evaluating the technology.
The company has engineered labor standards in place, so it already had baseline numbers for the potentially impacted areas:
The vendor allowed Company A to test one of the automated pallet jacks at its facility to help in the decision-making process and hopefully close the sale. Company A invested several weeks in training an individual on the equipment so that the pallet jack would be operated as the vendor intended. An engineer then studied the equipment under normal operating conditions, focusing on generating values for the affected elements of the picking process. In studying the new equipment, the engineer discovered an additional factor to consider: a system-response delay before the equipment moves forward. Figure 1 shows a summary of the values the engineer collected.
The element values indicate that potential savings exist, but the overall savings cannot be determined until the appropriate frequency of occurrence of each element is applied to each value. In the absence of simulation capabilities in a labor management system, the frequencies can be calculated using the following:
Once the company calculated those frequencies and knew the elemental times, it simply had to "do the math." Figure 2 provides a summary of those calculations.
Several factors were not considered in this calculation, including, but not limited to, maintenance-support hours and the impact on congestion delays. With these factors excluded, the values shown represent a "best case" scenario. Based on the cost of the additional investment in this technology, the results of the study would need to yield at least a 10-percent savings in order to justify serious consideration of such an investment.
After calculating a solid value of the projected labor gains from the new technology, the management team decided not to purchase the equipment unless the vendor was able to significantly reduce the price or further enhance the equipment to provide additional gains at the same price. As it turns out, the vendor's projected gains of 30 percent were actually closer to 20 percent, but new pallet jacks would only affect 25 percent of the total labor component of order picking, thus bringing down the overall savings into the neighborhood of 5 percent.