Integrating Solutions: A look at how integrators work within material handling
As many facilities work to increase production, add stock-keeping units, and boost e-commerce, multiple partners are often needed. Integrators are frequently one of the keys to helping coordinate software and automation. But how to approach the process of selecting an integrator can raise questions for an organization. This month, Material Handling Network spoke with industry experts about the latest developments of integrators within material handling businesses.
Creating seamless solutions
Chris Castaldi, vice president of sales at DMW&H, has been involved with automation, warehousing, and logistics since the 1980s. “I’ve seen a lot of change over time in the concepts in the world of distribution. I’ve seen how integrators have changed and how they’ve grown to be a pretty substantial provider of technology,” he said. “What’s happened over the years is that integrators have developed software and controls to be able to act as dealer distributors, developing complex solutions for distribution centers,” Castaldi said.
Having integrators that partner across multiple technologies means the ability to create “seamless solutions” for manufacturers, according to Castaldi. He said some integrators have been acquired by manufacturers because organizations saw the need to have a diversified portfolio.
DMW&H bills itself as “a premier automation material handling systems integrator.” The company has over 50 years of experience in “designing, integrating, installing and supporting market leading fulfillment solutions,” the website said.
When it comes to selecting an integrator, Castaldi believes the process is akin to picking a spouse. “You’re asking, ‘Do we have a connection? Do we believe in similar things? Do you understand me and my needs?” Castaldi said. He advocated having a transparent and close relationship with an integrator. Castaldi also recommended avoiding a strategy of sending out multiple bids to find the lowest price. “Be honest with them. Tell them, ‘This is what my budget is,” said Castaldi, who said sending out too many bids without knowing much about the companies involved won’t help narrow down which integrator would be the best fit.
When an integrator has been selected, he noted that the coordination needs to function as a business relationship. “You can’t presume to own the relationship. You have to work at it all the time,” said Castaldi, who noted he will advise customers frustrated with their integrators to consider whether more communication is needed before making a change.
A good integrator should not reinforce the gut instincts of an organization’s leaders on everything, according to Castaldi. An integrator should help a business question what they need and how they will use it, according to Castaldi.
As supply chain issues press on, he stressed that the process of finding and coordinating with an integrator may take additional time. “Do not leave it until the end. You can’t walk in and say, ‘I need you to fix my problem tomorrow,” he said.
Keith Moore, chief executive officer at AutoScheduler, noted the variety of software currently in use within warehouses and distribution centers, from warehouse management systems to control systems to labor management systems. And within this framework, there are many differences depending on the operation.
“Each is unique and different,” said Moore, from the systems themselves to the layout of the operation, all the way down to the various product lines. “You have all these different interesting problems you run into, such as which dock door should I use and what inventory do I need to pick today,” Moore said.
Integrators take the knowledge of existing platforms and marry them with a practical outcome of making the site as efficient as possible, according to Moore, who noted companies like Manhattan Associates, Blue Yonder, Open Sky Group, and Orion Systems Integrators LLC working in this vein.
“All of these different companies that do this integration work, their whole goal is to take the system and make it valuable for the customer. It is a value-added service provider on top of a purchase platform,” Moore said. There are two schools of thought on how integrators will trend going forward, according to Moore.
“One is that there’s always going to be a business for these service providers. I have this platform, how do I take a solution and make it valuable for that site,” he said, describing the process. The second projection is that more technology will be brought in to automate the integration process and minimize customization, according to Moore, echoing Castaldi’s observation.
Moore said many WMS vendors are starting to bring the integration process in-house so that they can further develop their platforms and minimize customization externally. This is directly counter to their missive of modularity and openness, which is a unique juxtaposition, according to Moore. “There’s a whole other breed of company starting to emerge, it’s all about bridging the gap from what you have to what you need,” he said.
AutoScheduler is “a warehouse resource planning and optimization platform that dynamically orchestrates all activities” on top of existing warehouse management systems in real-time, according to the business website.
“AutoScheduler runs next to the warehouse management system, and still leverages integrators for some of the complex interactions with the WMS,” Moore said. The value a solution like AutoScheduler provides is that instead of having an integrator to write a custom code for each site, the platform provides an optimized plan of operation tailor-made to the site’s constraints, according to Moore.
Moving towards modular
The need for the right technological fit within material handling remains strong. In the current supply chain, Moore said there is a phenomenon of companies trying to move items from point A to point B all while using slightly different tool sets.
“It’s customized so there is no clear way to share data between systems,” he said. “That’s why you have boutique integrators.” What is needed is a supply chain with clearly defined inputs and outputs, according to Moore, who said vendors are starting to get on board with this idea.
“You’re going to start to see, over five to ten years, that every solution can be treated as a black box. Here’s how you get data in and out. Data will be more readily available,” Moore said. He added that he knows this concept is conflicting with existing warehouse practices. “They all claim they want to be open, to get data in and out, while simultaneously creating that service integration and revenue,” Moore said. He projects the supply chains will eventually have to move to modular systems to accomplish the desired goals.
Moore acknowledged the challenge of the task. “The problem with logistics is you always have to deliver and the demand never stops. It’s like constantly changing the tires while driving 70 miles per hour down the highway,” Moore said. AutoScheduler speeds up projects by working on top of the existing system and integrating with the systems to send data, according to Moore.
“Most warehouse management system projects are going to be six months to one year. That’s per site,” he said. In contrast, AutoScheduler takes three to five months by working within the existing system. “Without that massive overhead of a big overhaul, it’s a smooth transition to the new system,” he said.
Moore noted that AutoScheduler has experience selecting integrators to work with. For operations currently looking to choose an integrator, Moore advises working with honest groups and understanding how the warehouse is designed to work.
Castaldi agreed. “When you’re picking an integrator, ask, ‘Does this person understand us? Do they understand what I do?” he said, stressing the importance of a “partnership model.” Castaldi also urged companies not to be afraid of the unknown. “Fear is the biggest challenge there is,” he said, noting the business cycles he has witnessed. “If you believe in your business, take advantage of the opportunities. If you’re fearful, you’re going to miss it,” Castaldi said.
About the Author:
Eileen Mozinski Schmidt is a freelance writer and journalist based in the Greater Milwaukee area. She has written for print and online publications for the past 13 years. Email Networkeditorial@MHNetwork.com or visit eileenmozinskischmidt.wordpress.com to contact Eileen. If your company would like to be featured, email Networkeditorial@MHNetwork.com