Deploying Computerized Maintenance Management Systems (CMMS) for Distribution Center Operations

Originally published at Modern Materials Handling:

By Roberto Michel (Modern Materials Handling) · November 29, 2017

Running an effective distribution center in picking intensive, automated environments not only is giving rise to new methods and systems for executing fulfillment within the four walls, it also is elevating the importance of maintenance processes and systems.

The operational pressures on DCs are intense. According to MHI’s annual industry report in 2017, 38% of respondents see customer demands for faster response times as “very challenging” while another 15% call it “extremely” challenging. To keep up with these requirements, DCs are deploying more automation like conveyors, sortation systems, shuttles or robotics. In fact, research firm Technavio expects the global market for automated materials handling systems to grow at a compound annual growth rate of more than 8% through 2021.

In this evolving environment, DC operators need to ask whether maintenance practices such as using spreadsheets to record repairs are sufficient or whether more advanced solutions such as computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) are called for. CMMS, also known as enterprise asset management (EAM), is becoming a more mission-critical system for DCs, according to software providers.

“It’s definitely become a more important type of solution for the warehousing market as facilities have become more automated,” says Harry Kohal, a vice president at Eagle Technology, an EAM/CMMS vendor. “And, it’s not just the level of automation that makes maintenance more important, it’s the expectations around shorter deliver times, which makes it critical that equipment runs reliably.”

CMMS solutions are used by many industries with large facilities where machine uptime is paramount. Warehouses can use CMMS/EAM to manage general equipment such as lighting; heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC); or access control systems. And increasingly, say vendors, they’re used for maintenance of automated materials handling equipment.

“Since CMMS’s purpose is to keep things up and running, it’s going to tend to be more important in a highly automated facility because you are relying less on manual labor and more on your machinery,” says Jonathan Clark, director of professional services for CMMS vendor CMMS Data Group.

The extent to which warehouses need CMMS will vary by facility, though the bigger a facility is, the more automated it is; and the more maintenance personnel there are, the greater the need. However, DC operators need to answer some questions when thinking about CMMS, including: “What happens when my materials handling equipment vendor does most of the maintenance on key pieces of automation,” and “Why do I really need CMMS when spreadsheets have worked adequately in the past?”

CMMS benefits

Some software vendors draw a distinction between CMMS and EAM, with EAM generally thought of as having deeper asset-management functionality, with CMMS more focused on execution of maintenance workflows. Whatever moniker is used, the solutions generally support maintenance work orders and technician dispatching, spares procurement and management, and analysis of asset history, though some solutions may have deeper functionality in certain areas.

The detailed maintenance history that CMMS provides is a core benefit for any user organization, says Tom Singer, a principal with supply chain consulting firm Tompkins International. “Frankly, any facility of significant size can benefit from CMMS just to manage normal maintenance on equipment like lighting or HVAC,” Singer explains. “At a basic level, you put in a CMMS as a tracking mechanism, so that you know the maintenance work you are performing, so you can measure performance, and then you can start identifying trends in your facility that warrant some different maintenance practices.”

An early “win” for many CMMS users, says Kohal, is to use the system to ensure that required inspections for health and safety are getting done, and records can be instantly accessed. “Inspections and related documentation tend to be an early area for attention in a system deployment because it ensures the organization is doing what it is supposed to be doing to comply with regulations, while also helping with general readiness of the facility,” says Kohal.

While spreadsheets can be used to track maintenance events, a CMMS gives the organization a richer asset history, easier reporting capabilities, and one centralized system to define and manage critical failure points, adds Kohal. “A CMMS ensures you are taking care of all the preventative maintenance and spares management for anything that is a critical failure point, which in a DC, might be a conveyor/sortation system, or in a drug or food distribution warehouse, a freezer or refrigeration system,” Kohal says. “These are the critical failure points you want to be sure are managed well so you don’t risk downtime or product loss.”

CMMS solutions that support contractor permissions enable a third party to leverage the system, while giving the DC operator oversight into issues like costs and spares logistics.

CMMS/EAM systems also establish a framework for asset information, setting forth data on the location of equipment, prescribed service intervals, and replacement parts or consumables. Many CMMS/EAM solutions also allow for the setup of asset hierarchies.

While some CMMS users will stick to a simple hierarchy structure, says Clark, such as “Line 1” and the main equipment on that line, other organizations will be more detailed about the “children” subsystems or parts within each piece of equipment, listing individual motors, divert points or whatever component might need maintenance. “With an asset hierarchy, you can get a snapshot view of maintenance costs for an entire line, and you can drill down into the costs for each piece of equipment or component,” says Clark.

EAM vendors tend to place more emphasis on functionality like asset hierarchy, cost analysis and deep functionality for MRO procurement and sourcing analytics. According to Michael Weinberg, a senior vice president with Synovos, which offers EAM software and a range of MRO and asset-related services, CMMS is mainly focused on planning and scheduling of maintenance activities, whereas EAM pulls in broader asset lifecycle issues.

Companies with a large DC network can benefit from taking a more enterprise approach that allows for a consistent look at asset history and spares procurement across all sites, Weinberg explains. “[With EAM] you can have enterprise-wide visibility into inventory, available replacement parts and service intervals, so you can understand where you might have a challenge with a certain asset, or a part, or a maintenance process, and why one site manages certain things better than another,” he says.

Materials handling links

In many DCs, there is some outsourced maintenance. A materials handling automation vendor might perform much of the maintenance on a high-end sorter or a shuttle system, or an HVAC firm might take care of refrigeration in a food warehouse. In these cases, say CMMS providers, it can still be useful for the DC operator to leverage CMMS to define repair responsibilities, monitor costs for maintenance, and ensure spares or MRO goods are readily available.

Most CMMS systems, says Clark, will allow contractors to log on and use the system, though perhaps limiting them to the assets assigned to them. This would allow the contractor to use the CMMS to execute and record maintenance events, while the DC operator would have full oversight into issues like costs and spares logistics. “Even if a contractor is doing most of the maintenance, you can use CMMS to project out your parts needs for preventative maintenance to make sure everything you need is ordered in time and on hand when it needs to be,” says Clark. “We have one client who does just that because the parts for automated system have to come all the way from Europe.”

To help manage maintenance when work is performed by a combination of in-house staff and third-party technicians, the EAM solution should be able to clearly define who is responsible for the service events that might arise, according to Kevin Price, EAM technical product evangelist with Infor. With Infor’s EAM system, this identification of who is responsible for specific service tasks can be delineated using a feature called standard work order definition templates to avoid confusion over what work internal staff can perform and what is best left to the contractor or OEM. “The EAM system should know all of these responsibilities for you,” says Price.

A CMMS should be also able to integrate with a warehouse control system (WCS) or a building automation system to accept alerts regarding any failure or out-of-specification condition, says Eagle Technology’s Kohal. There are several Eagle clients who the use the CMMS in DCs, says Kohal. These include a major drug distribution company that uses the solution across a network of about 30 DCs to manage maintenance for a range of assets, including critical equipment like freezers, refrigeration and automated conveyors.

Dematic is a major provider of automated materials handling systems that also offers a CMMS. According to Erica Schatte, product manager for the CMMS, the system can tie into alerts from Dematic’s warehouse execution system (WES) or receive alerts being triggered by IoT-connected sensors or motors.

Once the CMMS receives an alert, it sends out notifications to managers or technicians who need to respond to, or be made aware of, a repair or condition. “The system can issue e-mails to various stakeholders,” says Schatte. “It can update the status of your equipment. If a piece of equipment is down, it’s shown as unavailable for use. You now have a holistic view of your assets, where they are, and in what condition they are in.”

Singer agrees that with increasing automation in DCs, it’s important that the CMMS can interoperate with WCS/WES software as well as Internet of Things (IoT) software platforms used to take in real-time feeds from IoT-connected sensors. A key business use for these IoT feeds in DCs will be for predictive maintenance, he adds.

“If you are monitoring automation components in real time, then you have the opportunity to generate analytics for predictive maintenance,” says Singer. “More of the equipment and subsystem components we are now installing have the capability of providing an IoT feed, so ideally, you want to be able to aggregate that up to a platform you can then mine from a maintenance management perspective.”

Going forward, expect some overlap between WES, IoT and CMMS solutions, says Singer. Tompkins, for instance, offers WCS/WES software and has more recently launched a subsidiary business called SensorThink that offers a solution that combines WES, an IoT platform and a data analytics engine aimed at the challenges of more highly automated DCs.

“There will be some blurring of the lines between solution types,” says Singer. “I foresee that more WES/warehouse control providers are going to look to leverage the data their systems already are collecting in a maintenance management context. It’s going to happen because it provides more value to users.”

IoT-capable equipment and IoT platforms may seem new to many DC operators, but the technology is available today, says Singer, and it is coming down in price point and ease of deployment. Ideally, he adds, DC operators will pair IoT platforms with CMMS to follow through on maintenance actions identified by analytics. “You really need CMMS to manage the back half of the equation—to be able to execute on any maintenance actions that need to take place and record the history.”

In short, DC operators are looking to leverage CMMS for materials handling system reliability. Materials handling automation vendor Honeywell Intelligrated, which offers a CMMS solution called IRIS, has multiple users of the CMMS who use it to support all aspects of maintenance, including for materials handling equipment and powered industrial trucks, says Dave Trice, senior director of business development for lifecycle support services for Honeywell Intelligrated. “The ideal solution is to utilize the [CMMS] platform as the central tool for all aspects of facilities maintenance,” says Trice.

Mobile EAM focus

Most CMMS/EAM vendors also have enhanced their mobile features, making more EAM functionality accessible to technicians on the go.

“The biggest thing that’s changing goes back to the questions people are asking about more access to data on mobile devices,” says Schatte. “We’re using technology to put the CMMS in the hands of the technicians. As an example, that allows the system to send real-time alerts to a technician.”

Infor’s Price agrees mobile EAM functionality is essential for productivity, but should be a “native” part of the system rather than an add-on. “With mobile, you can pull up the information you need, such as who did a repair on an asset last or what part did they use, and make a better decision,” he says.

Clark points out the CMMS/EAM mobile app functions can be paired with location tagging using QR codes, other bar codes, or radio frequency identification tags so that technicians with mobile devices can do a quick scan or tag read to jump into the workflow for the asset they need to service. This saves time by lessening the navigation of the system and ensuring accuracy when it comes to location data.

Overall, vendors point out that a CMMS deployment is a work in progress and needs constant attention so asset information, parts data or lead times from suppliers are kept up to date. All this care and feeding of a CMMS, and supporting asset data and MRO supply chain processes, are needed to make the most of the software’s features and functions.

As Weinberg points out when discussing his company’s attention to services, “If you don’t have enriched, accurate data loaded into the system, and you don’t have assets up in your hierarchy with the bill of materials associated with those assets, and the correct work processes set up to really maximize your maintenance efforts, it doesn’t matter what system you have, it’s just not going to work well.”

About the Author

Roberto Michel, an editor at large for Modern Materials Handling (MMH), has covered manufacturing and supply chain management trends since 1996, mainly as a former staff editor and former contributor at Manufacturing Business Technology. He has been a contributor to MMH since 2004. He has worked on numerous show dailies, including at ProMat, the North American Material Handling Logistics show, and National Manufacturing Week. He can be reached at