Eliminating Bottlenecks in the Supply Chain

Bottlenecks occur everywhere in manufacturing companies; they happen in production, distribution, fulfillment and other functions within a supply chain. A bottleneck in a process occurs when input comes in faster than the next step can use it to create output. Bottlenecks can be caused by inadequate equipment and production where capacity has been topped out; because of inefficient processes where throughput has been maxed; and because of poor productivity where labor is not used efficiently.

Operationally, usually the asset, machine or resource that takes the longest amount of time is recognized as the bottleneck. Therefore, in a supply chain, a bottleneck governs its throughput, efficiency, productivity and profitability.

Capacity constraints affect a company's ability to grow and cause profits to decline. Apparel manufacturers that have a capacity bottleneck will find everyone's production and efficiency reduced to the speed of throughput at the bottleneck.  The operation will slow to the lowest common denominator — the productivity at the slowest part of the process. Identifying and then fixing bottlenecks is clearly very important as a first step to improved overall operational efficiency.

Gain visibility & analyze data to find bottlenecks
What is needed is visibility into the supply chain to determine where bottlenecks occur. Gaining visibility into the equipment, processes and products that comprise a manufacturer's operations requires capturing data from end to end. From the supply chain and inventory management all the way through the manufacturing process and continuing into distribution and fulfillment, increased productivity and throughput can be mined from the information that's available. The abundance of data generated throughout the enterprise can be used to improve facility, labor and equipment productivity; increase safety; boost throughput and inventory accuracy; and prolong the life of key processing and material handling equipment.

Accessing the right information to make smart decisions in the supply chain is one main reason why the demand for big data has grown so much — and so rapidly — in the apparel and retail sector. Big data can offer valuable insights into all kinds of patterns and processes. Analysis such as the number of cases packed, orders handled, or boxes shipped can tell how well throughput is within the distribution center.

Apparel manufacturers and retailers are finding that the way to make sense of big data is to use a warehouse control system to capture data in the fulfillment process. A warehouse control system can provide a high level of clear, visible, usable information from distribution processes. The system collects data from all warehouse points and processes but it also makes sense of the data. It provides sophisticated analytical capabilities that give managers real-time insights into all aspects of warehouse performance. Drilling down within the data helps businesses better understand their performance numbers, spot bottlenecks and determine how best to make improvements. Analyzing labor performance metrics can help companies predict labor needs during specific periods of seasonality.

Warehouse control systems relieve a host computer of managing real-time material handling automation, ensuring the host is not slowed down, which can produce a bottleneck. The warehouse control system maximizes systems throughput and performance.

Adding automation to eliminate bottlenecks
Statistics show that warehouse managers and industry analysts believe that adding new material handling automation equipment can reclaim inefficient processes in the distribution center. Lost time and productivity occurs if there is no automation in the areas of picking, packing, sorting, loading and unloading.

The most labor-intensive operation in the warehouse is almost always picking product. Managing the flow of orders in the pick area to minimize congestion and avoid bottlenecks is key to optimizing labor productivity. Selecting the correct picking operation will help achieve the greatest operational efficiency.

First, some considerations for laying out any pick area:
  • Product location. Eliminate non-value-added steps and excess travel distances by placing more frequently picked product in the easiest-to-reach locations.
  • The Golden Zone. Proper ergonomics reduce operator fatigue and injury, so locate pick racks and shelving between the waist and shoulder; use appropriate storage fixtures that properly present product to pickers; and locate odd-shaped, bulky or heavy product in locations that ensure safe handling.
  • Transaction technology. Perform transactions during the picking process by using RF terminals, wireless speech systems or other integrated transaction-automation technologies to generate a single, seamless, real-time system of record.
Reducing human touches, balancing workloads, and reducing space between operations can eliminate bottlenecks by optimizing the work zone and picking operations. For example, automated storage and retrieval systems provide 100 percent accessible storage and are designed to deliver stored items at an ergonomically optimized height to eliminate bending, stretching and reaching. This design not only improves productivity, but also reduces employee stress and potential injury. Stored items are automatically delivered to the operator, eliminating walk and search time.  Batch picking and pick-to-light technology can improve throughput up to 500 percent in some applications. These systems require very little training to master, while improving picking accuracy.

Downtime can create bottlenecks
In the warehouse, if material handling systems suffer frequent breakdowns, you can experience downtime, another bottleneck that halts the fulfillment process. Investing in services that maintain equipment can optimize performance of equipment. Frequent breakdowns equate to loss of productivity and have a direct effect on profits.

Performing an audit on your material handling equipment helps you to zero in on productivity inefficiencies, evaluating such areas as picking, conveying and sorting rates.  A schedule of planned maintenance actions aimed at the prevention of breakdowns can extend the life expectancy of automated systems, while eliminating bottlenecks. Regularly scheduled preventive maintenance can help you determine when components will fail so you can do corrective work on them before they break down. 

The goal of warehouse operations is to satisfy customers' needs and requirements while utilizing space, equipment and labor effectively. Meeting this goal requires strategic planning, automation, and ongoing updates to meet changing customer requirements. Eliminating bottlenecks within warehouse operations ensures you will meet on-time deliveries, improve throughput, enhance customer service and create bottom-line profitability.

Chris Castaldi is director of business development, W&H Systems.
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