Industry 4.0: is the WMS a new quality tool ?

An expert opinion from experienced Manufacturing Consultant Joseph Dhuicq.

Quality management tools (QMTs) such as PDCA, Pareto chart, 8D, 5S, Poka Yoke, Ishikawa, Six Sigma, Kaizen, 5P, FMECA and Kanban have played a fundamental role for industrial companies since the 60s. But another lesser-known one may soon be joining their ranks: the Warehouse Management System (WMS).

Industry: quality’s not optional

A quick reminder before we go any further.

The term “quality” covers such a broad scope that it can seem pretty vague. A widely accepted definition is that quality is a “characteristic of a product or service that meets pre-established standards, contributing to its value”.

As vague as quality may seem, it’s indispensable when it comes to protecting the company (legally and economically) and winning new clients while continuously improving satisfaction.

Companies have three quality areas (products, processes and organization) at four levels (inspection, control, improvement and innovation).

The challenge is, of course, to have all three areas at “innovation” level where the company has sound knowledge of its processes, performs them in accordance with plans and is constantly improving. These solid foundations enable it to safely seize new opportunities.

Quality management tools (QMTs) help companies progress to the next quality level. First-generation QMTs are production measurement and analysis tools. This is the control stage. Second-generation QMTs enable companies to analyze and solve complex problems. This is the improvement stage.

But what has that got to do with a WMS?

Is the WMS a new QMT ?

A Warehouse Management System (WMS) is software for managing the full range of tasks in a logistics warehouse including receipt, storage, preparation, despatch and inventory. Originally designed for warehouses, it has now broadened its scope for use in industry by car manufacturers and food and pharmaceutical companies for instance, all of which are seeking to improve their logistics systems to avoid stock-outs, reduce costs and tighten control of operations.

Undertaking a WMS project is no mean feat for companies, especially when logistics has not traditionally been one of their core business areas. It usually involves a change in philosophy which impacts the quality of processes but also the organization and product/service.

The “process” quality area is affected most significantly as a WMS collects operational data (inspection level) and ensures operator compliance with procedures (control level). Performance can then be analyzed in order to improve (improvement level). Finally, processes that were impossible prior to implementing a WMS can be introduced (overall level), such as choosing a location according to several criteria, automatic replenishment creation, full traceability, etc.

The “organization/management” quality area is also impacted. First of all, the WMS provides an overview of operations which can be managed via a monitoring system (inspection level). Secondly, its implementation requires processes to have been formalized in advance (control level), resulting in more efficient task distribution, which is now transparent due to being managed in the WMS (improvement level). Finally, new tools such as the Labour Management System provide the option to distribute and anticipate resources according to current and future workloads (innovation level).

The “product/service” quality area is the least impacted by implementing a WMS. However, using the WMS to control operations improves product/service traceability (control level), reduces the unit cost of production (improvement level) and provides the option of redesigning the supply chain to offer a new client experience (environmental impact, etc.).

Deploying a WMS helps the whole company to boost and maintain its level of quality over the long term. Unlike first- and second-generation QMTs, it’s not an agile tool for periodic use from scratch but a key tool to be used every day.

How Renault improved its overall quality with Reflex WMS

The Renault situation speaks for itself. The group chose Reflex WMS as a key component of its industry 4.0 strategy.

The first improvements were made when designing flows in the WMS. Only flows validated as optimal were transferred to the WMS, avoiding local adaptations and standardizing plant processes, thus creating new inter-plant synergies !

Other improvements were made when equipping the warehouse with labels that can be interpreted by the WMS. Location and aisle names were simplified, making them easier for operators to understand and paving the way for new automation and location applications.

Further improvements were observed when using Reflex WMS. An operator noted at the end of the first day that they had avoided four line-side replenishment errors. It’s not difficult to imagine the impact of this “minor improvement” in a plant employing hundreds of operators for just-in-time production line replenishment. The WMS eliminates daily stock update inventories and automates threshold-based plant replenishments, preventing errors and quality defects relating to communication among employees.

The diagram below shows how deploying a WMS improved Renault’s quality level.

As an operational performance, quality, collective intelligence and standardization tool, the WMS promises to break down barriers not only between logistics warehouses and plants but between logistics and quality managers.