If you've been around the industry for a while, you've probably heard (or perhaps lived through) a retrofit horror story or two. Maybe a legacy warehouse management system (WMS) had trouble "talking" to a new piece of equipment. Or maybe existing equipment was damaged during the process of "cutting in" to make room for the new. Or maybe no one paid enough attention to how all the pieces of automated equipment would work together as a single system.
How can you avoid having your own retrofit project end up like a bad dream? We asked several industry experts for their advice. What follows are their tips on how to make your systems integration project run smoothly.
1. Start with a deep dive into your own operations. Before you even begin to think about the solution, be clear about the specific business problem you're trying to solve. It's not unusual for companies to go about things backward, according to Jay Moris, chief marketing officer at systems integrator Invata. "I think some people get very enamored with the bright and shiny automation that looks cool and high-tech," he says. "Then they try to find ways to fit their business into that shiny, pretty box, and it just doesn't work."
It's also important to collect good order and inventory data and develop solid growth projections, according to Mark Steinkamp, director of solutions development for the systems integrator Intelligrated. This will help ensure you select equipment that's able to keep up with both current and future demand.
In addition to collecting the necessary order data, be sure you provide your integrator with up-to-date information on your current material handling systems, advises Steve Brandt, vice president of business development and customer service for systems integrator Dematic. That's particularly true if you've made modifications to your systems after the original install, he says. Otherwise, your integrator is going to end up drafting a plan for connecting the old and new equipment based on outdated information, and costly rework will be needed later on.
2. Beware of having "too many cooks." If you're connecting equipment from two or more vendors, make sure that all of the teams are working together and that someone is in charge of the overall project. Otherwise, you risk having a situation where each vendor is focusing only on its own "island of automation," with no one paying attention to the whole archipelago, so to speak.
For example, if you're creating a new packaging line using equipment that produces boxes on demand, someone has to decide how the conveyors will feed into the equipment and make sure the scanner's programmable logic controller (PLC) can communicate directly with the WMS. These details might not occur to someone who's focused solely on one part of the installation.
3. Consider the "ripple effects." It's not enough to simply select a new piece of equipment; you also have to consider where it should be physically located and how it will fit into the overall flow of the operation, says Jason Denmon, apparel and specialty retail industry leader at the distribution consulting and design engineering firm Fortna. "When I think about logical flow, I first of all ask, does it fit without being too jammed in?" he says. "Does it cause congestion? Does it cause too much travel time for employees as they move to and from their work area? Does it logically fit into the flow of operations, as it goes from step one to step two to step three?"
Thinking about the logical flow also means considering the "ripple effect" on equipment and processes both upstream and downstream, Denmon says. Even if it appears that a new piece of equipment will fit into the operation nicely, further investigation might reveal that, say, the added volume from the new area will quickly overwhelm capacity downstream. To avoid this type of problem, Denmon recommends mapping out the new operation in detail before proceeding with any installation.
4. Don't ignore the software. A key part of that mapping exercise should be determining how the different software and controls will communicate with one another. It is this piece of an integration project that often turns out to be the most complex and expensive, says Bob Babel, vice president, engineering and implementation, for Forté Industries, a planning, design, and integration firm owned by Swisslog. "If a WMS is talking to one WCS (warehouse control system) for a pick-to-light system and another for a sortation conveyor, and now another for print-and-apply [equipment], it gets very complicated," he observes.
According to Moris, the work involved in making sure the various pieces are talking to one another can cost as much as the rest of the project put together. He recalls one proposed project where the numbers were all falling into place—that is, it appeared that the labor, material, and space savings would easily offset the cost of the new equipment—until the cost of integrating the system with the company's WMS was factored in. "And then the financial justification just went right out the window," he says.
Babel also notes that companies may be able to simplify communications among multiple pieces of equipment by "elevating the WCS or warehouse execution system" into an integration layer between the different equipment's controllers and the WMS.
5. Prepare to be disrupted. Consider yourself forewarned: In most cases, it's impossible to integrate a new piece of equipment without disrupting existing operations to some degree, says Greg Meyne, design manager for the systems integrator and consulting firm enVista. "As early as possible, the integrator and the end user should go through a step-by-step scheduling process that covers when and where a particular disruption is going to happen and what needs to be done to adjust to it," he advises.
One area that's particularly prone to disruption is a facility's storage area, Meyne says. Many times, the new equipment will be placed in a section of the DC that previously was used for storage. In such cases, the customer should have a plan for where to house those stored goods during the project as well as how to access them during that period.
Disruption is also likely to occur when the new equipment is connected to the old equipment. To reduce the impact of that disruption, the connection can be scheduled for off-shift hours, such as on a weekend or a holiday, Meyne says.
Disruptions and delays may also arise if an installer accidentally damages equipment during the "cut-in," or insertion, process. For this reason, Brandt recommends having spare parts on hand for both the old and new equipment.
6. Beware of the vague test plan. Drafting a comprehensive test plan that lays out specific steps, defines metrics for success, and identifies a fallback solution in case the new equipment doesn't run to specification can lead to a smoother implementation. According to Meyne, it is wise to first run a virtual test of the software. "Have the WCS and WMS communicate to a virtual server to make sure all communication protocols are working prior to going on-site," he suggests.
Next, Meyne recommends running a site test of just the mechanical equipment to make sure that items are being inducted, merged, sorted, and stored correctly. Only then should you marry the two pieces together.
Brandt suggests running at least one test shift that simulates conditions at full volume with all, or close to all, personnel present. This will reveal any flaws and give you a chance to correct them before the system goes live.
7. Don't send your integrator home too early. Finally, just because you've had several successful test runs, don't assume that you can go live without a hitch. According to Brandt, some quirks may not show up until after a system starts to run at full volume. For this reason, it's important for your integrator to stick around after the implementation. For less complex jobs, the integration staff may only need to be there for a shift or two. More complex integrations may require the team to remain on the site for a couple of weeks.
Brandt has one other piece of advice: "An additional thing to consider if you're a retailer and doing a mid-summer implementation is to bring back your integrator on Black Friday when volumes peak."
While it may seem wasteful to pay the integrator for a couple of extra days or weeks, Brandt says there can be value in doing so, even if the implementation turns out to be flawless. Instead of troubleshooting, the integration team could be put to work training your staff on the system's new functionalities and offering tips that can help them make better, smarter use of the new equipment.