Control towers are no longer just for supply chains. Distribution centers, too, can take advantage of the visibility and responsiveness afforded by a control tower to boost operating efficiency.
As the name implies, a control tower provides visibility into shipments going into or out of plants or warehouses and DCs. Because it affords visibility across multiple locations, a supply chain control tower enables a company to respond to unforeseen events - say, a hurricane or port strike. Once alerted to the disruption, the company can take proactive measures, such as having another plant or DC ship product to a customer to avoid a delay. Although third-party logistics service providers often operate control towers for clients, a company can set up and staff its own control tower with special software. This type of software is available from such vendors as Oracle, E2open, and Kinaxis, to name a few.
To date, most of the companies that have deployed control towers have been organizations with complex or far-flung supply chains. Capgemini consultant Rob van Doesburg cites the example of a high-tech manufacturer in Europe that has included warehouse operations in its outbound control tower. "The scope of these control tower operations is the product flow from [receipt] at port to delivery at the final customer [site] and includes monitoring warehouse operations in Western and Eastern Europe to [provide] an end-to-end view of the supply chain," he explains.
But that's just one example of how a control tower might be used. Another option would be to set up a control tower specifically for a distribution center as a means of better managing workflow inside the facility, says Thomas A. Moore, a managing partner at the software developer Transportation/Warehouse Optimization. Moore has helped one major consumer packaged goods company install such a tower at a plant with a warehouse. In Moore's view, DCs can benefit from a control tower because "when you're at a local level, you need to have something making decisions because there are so many things coming at you so fast."
In order to provide a big picture view of the operation, a DC control tower integrates with other applications at the site, such as the warehouse management system (WMS), transportation management system (TMS), order management system (OMS), and yard management system (YMS). That cross-application visibility enables the logistics manager to do a better job of coordinating the work that needs to be done in the distribution center. For instance, up-to-the-minute visibility would allow the manager to make more-informed decisions regarding which trailer should be unloaded first based on dock capacity or which products should be staged for cross-docking versus stored for later shipment. In the event that a truck were delayed in traffic and unable to meet its appointment window, the control tower could even assist the logistics manager in reassigning work.
In a dynamic world where events outside the warehouse walls can impact operations within, a DC control tower makes it possible for logistics managers to see what's happening so they can reschedule equipment and personnel. For example, if the DC suddenly had to push out a rush order, the control tower could direct the WMS to reallocate picking assignments while instructing the TMS to schedule a carrier.
As more logistics managers seek ways to control costs and boost efficiency, a DC control tower may offer a solution. "Just as an airport control tower uses finite capacity scheduling—sequencing the events in a logical way and in concert with the whole air-traffic control system—distribution centers gain from a plan that is achievable and efficient and fits in with the "grand scheme" of supply chain planning," Moore contends.