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By Sean Barbera • September 4, 2020

Data Collection: The First Step in the Path to Warehouse Automation

So your business has finally decided to enter the world of warehouse automation.

Earlier posts in our seven-part series have covered the basics of automation, including its benefits, why it's necessary in today's competitive and challenging supply chain landscape, and when the right time is to automate.

Now it's time to get down to the nuts and bolts of automation, beginning with the critical process of data collection. The data collection process is a great starting point for warehouse automation. Historically accomplished through manual note taking, data was stored in physical files. This process was eventually updated to manual keyboard entry and storage in a database, spreadsheet or some sort of digital file.

Both of these manual data collection processes lend themselves to human error, however, not to mention the valuable time needed to manually write or key in large amounts of information.

A great example of this may be found in the receiving department. Without automation, an employee in receiving must key in important numbers like SKUs or other product codes and quantities. Products are then stored in corresponding areas of the warehouse. But the potential for recording a wrong number is great, which completely jams the system for storing, retrieving, packing and shipping that improperly logged item. In the worst-case scenario, a customer will receive an incorrect item.

Data Validation Can Make or Break Your Supply Chain

Inaccurate data collection and validation represents a major problem in the warehouse and supply chain industry at large. According to research from Internet Retailer, overstocks and returns cost retailers a whopping $1.75 trillion per year on average.

And according to retailer Target, the three largest errors caused by a lack of data validation include listing the wrong products, listing inaccurate product attributes and duplicate listings or content.

“Guests who shop online and in our stores are spending more than twice as much as store-only guests," said Angela Schulz, senior director, Item Center of Excellence at Target. "Our online guests are quickly becoming our most valuable guests as well as our most demanding ones. That’s why we are investing in data quality. We’re transitioning from data as simply foundational to data as a strategic asset that fuels revenue growth.”

Automation to the Rescue

To remove the chances of human error and the massive loss of profits, time and productivity associated with it, warehouses need to take the first step and automate the data collection process. That means implementing a system where information is collected automatically using a barcode scanner or similar method.

Some solutions, like Loxodo's Mobile Warehouse Management Offering, are designed to eliminate costly scanners and make use of mobile and handheld devices for data capture. The company's system uses a mobile app that is designed to work with SAP Business One and SAP Business ByDesign to streamline and automate warehouse management and operations.

No matter the capture method, however, data collection automation enables information from incoming product shipments to be automatically shared with a central data repository. This may include an ERP system like SAP, or some other database. The entire process is streamlined and accurate, with information readily available to other software, departments and systems since it is stored centrally.

Typically, device-agnostic software facilitates communication between mobile devices or scanners and the ERP or central storage repository. Data is collected from a variety of sources include barcodes, RFID tags, physical automation equipment and IoT devices.

The Value of Automating Data Collection

Automating the data collection process essentially eliminates human error, streamlining the receiving, storage, picking, packing and shipping processes. But it also provides additional value by collecting and storing accurate details and data about inventory levels and even manufacturing processes that can help improve warehouse operations and aid managers in real-time decision-making.

In short, data collection automation is a natural and relatively simple first step in the path to overall warehouse automation. It offers immediate improvements in terms of error elimination and productivity increases. And by ensuring accuracy it boosts customer satisfaction and improves company branding and reputation.

Future posts in this series will discuss how to automate other areas of the warehouse as well as the importance of a warehouse management system.