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SUPPLY CHAIN: Getting the goods

It's difficult enough to move human resources to the positions required to maximize efficiency and increase service level, but when those resources are 20-ton trailers in a yard at a distribution center, the process can be nearly impossible.

That's just what Greg Vick, director of distribution and Web systems for Commerce, Calif.-based Unified Western Grocers (UWG), was up against. The yards of the retailer-owned wholesaler's distribution centers were in perpetual gridlock. Trailers were always double-stacked, making it tough for people in the DC to know their contents.

"In order to reduce the impact of this congestion on our retail customers and make it invisible to them, we had to run a great deal of extra labor in the yard," says Vick. "We call them 'yard spotters,' people who were dedicated to inventorying trailers in the yard. They did nothing all day but walk through the yards and inventory trailer positions. We basically would have extra people in the yard with a pen and pad, constantly coordinating the parking positions and what's in the trucks, and 'yard goats' who would move all the trailers, unbury them, and find what we were looking for."

Buried product

Often the DC wouldn't be able to ship product because it was buried behind the trailers. "It was impossible to get to the trailer we needed, either to remedy an out-of-stock condition or to get that trailer out of the gate in a timely manner," says Vick. "For any kind of logistics system to operate, you need space to shuffle things around. When you get too many trailers in the yard, your productivity goes straight down."

Vick took steps to fix this problem by implementing the Triceps supply chain solution, a real-time warehouse management system developed by OMI International, a supply chain execution and warehouse management solutions provider acquired by Dallas-based Retalix in January.

The Triceps solution enables paperless end-to-end inventory management from point of receipt until final shipment. Users benefit from a flow of real-time, synchronized information that allows for more accurate tracking of warehouse inventory levels, reduced handling and inventory charges, improved labor productivity, and more efficient management of store orders.

Part of the Triceps solution is the Mobile Distribution System (MDS), which automates the process of routine data collection and reporting for all yard and dock activities. Using a combination of radio frequency (RF) technology and intelligent scheduling software, the assets and labor in the yard can now be monitored in real time -- providing on-screen visibility of labor, dock scheduling, and productivity tracking.

"This system allows us to have visibility into the yard, and the status of the yard as it's filling up or it's slowing down," says Vick. "This way we can take the appropriate measures to reorganize our trailers or send them on the road, so that we don't run into gridlock."

In addition, the system also makes sure that the right trailer is moved at the right time, letting retailers expedite their outbound deliveries and coordinate their outbound and inbound deliveries. "If you're about to be shorting a particular product and you have that product in the yard, it allows you to recognize that the product is there and you can bring it to the door to prevent out-of-stocks," notes Vick. "It prioritizes the trucks by need."

Prioritized shipments

The MDS system interfaces with UWG's buying systems to ensure that the most needed product is brought to the door first. It also coordinates UWG's deliveries, based on when the products are scheduled to arrive at the stores. Factors such as commitment times are entered into the system, to create rules for movement in the yards. Emergency needs can be inputted into the system -- for instance, a run on batteries in anticipation of an earthquake -- and priorities could then be readjusted.

For all the good things the Triceps system does out in the yard -- like reducing congestion and facilitating on-time deliveries -- it provides just as much value inside the warehouse, according to Vick. "It enables warehouse management to turn the doors much more quickly and more reliably," he says. "Turning the doors means that you get one truck out of the door and you can start loading the next. So if you have x number of doors, but you have 10 times the number of deliveries, it's important to get one truck out of the door and the next truck in. So there are savings inside the warehouse, as well, by being able to turn the doors more quickly and reliably, and it eliminates congestion on the docks."

To complement the Triceps system, Vick implemented Vocollect's voice-activated picking system. "In fact, we just about have Vocollect rolled out at the Commerce DC," observes Vick. "We went live with Triceps on July 19. It was going so well that we already started our Vocollect installation. The Triceps came with the RF forklift features right out of the box, and things went so well that less than a month later we've been able to roll out Vocollect throughout the facility."

Talk to me

What the wireless Vocollect system does is translate data in the DC's information system into spoken commands that workers hear via headsets connected to the belt-worn Talkman terminal. Their spoken responses are then translated back into data and sent to the host computer by an RF network. All the translations go back and forth instantaneously, creating a real-time working dialogue between the worker and the Talkman terminal.

The hands-free, eyes-free system allows employees to move around as they go from task to task. Additionally, because the system eliminates manual data entry, workers can do their jobs faster, more accurately, and more productively. "I expect the system to boost inventory accuracy and our picking accuracy," says Vick. "That's important because it will improve service level and reduce the number of returns."

Vick expects to have the Vocollect system fully installed at the Commerce DC by mid-September and plans to roll it out to the remaining five DCs, along with the Triceps system, by the end of 2006.

To keep UWG's retailer customers connected to the supply chain, the company built an Internet-based order-processing and billing system surrounding the OMI application. "With the warehousing system, you take orders in on one side, and then you put shipments out," says Vick. "There are a lot of people involved -- you have marketing, sales, distribution, transportation, help desks -- they're all concerned with delivering orders in a timely, accurate manner. So it's more than just the warehouse crew that's involved with ensuring accurate orders. We built a custom intranet that allows employees from all the departments to have visibility into the order and to participate in the timely sourcing and service of orders to our customers. So if you want to check and see what an order is doing, we're giving them a tool that allows them to do that."

Moving forward, Vick wants to explore other possibilities with RF technology. This is particularly true regarding UWG's meat warehouses. "Meat is a real natural for RF technology, because of the additional information you have to process related to catch-weight product," explains Vick. "It will save keying time and save receiving time in terms of getting product put away in the system, and it will save time in selection in terms of not having to manually record the catch weight for each case that goes out to a store."

Less labor

He gives an example: "Catch weight means that a case weighs 11.6 pounds. When you ship that out to a customer, you have to record the fact that you gave him the case that was 11.6 pounds, not the one that was 13.02 pounds. So you can see why that would be labor-intensive. The picker has to manually record the poundage that's going out to each store. With RF technology, that poundage -- the catch-weight amount -- is encoded in the label, so all you have to do is have some kind of portable RF scanner, and it will automatically record the case weight at the time of selection. That's a very cool thing for meat, because almost all meat is catch weight, and catch weight is very intensive because of the need to record these weights. You charge by the pound, and the customer isn't going to pay you for 13.02 pounds when you sent him only 11.6. You must record how many pounds you sent to each particular customer, because each case weighs a different amount."

RF technology will eliminate this manual process: Pickers will be able to automatically record the number of pounds that are sent out to each store, without any manual effort at the time the case is picked. "We're anxious for that technology to keep moving, and to come up with a pilot with some of our partners," says Vick.
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