A Ware­house Space Odyssey

New tech­nol­ogy is bring­ing a sci-fi spin to the back end of the re­tail sup­ply chain.

Progressive Grocer (India) - - Contents - By Jenny Mc­tag­gart

If some­one made a sci­ence fic­tion film about gro­cery ware­hous­ing, the scene might look some­thing like this: drones fly­ing through the air count­ing in­ven­tory, au­to­mated guided ve­hi­cles tak­ing con­tents off trail­ers and putting them away, and lit-up tun­nels equipped with RFID sen­sors, tak­ing pris­tine records of ev­ery per­ish­able prod­uct that trav­els through their dark con­fines.

This sce­nario might ac­tu­ally hap­pen in the not­too-dis­tant fu­ture, ac­cord­ing to some of the gro­cery in­dus­try’s ware­hous­ing tech­nol­ogy pros. As well as ex­cit­ing new tech­nol­ogy ap­pli­ca­tions on the mar­ket, they cite the promis­ing in­te­gra­tion of sys­tems and tech­nolo­gies al­ready be­ing com­bined to tackle two of the in­dus­try’s most press­ing needs: ac­cu­racy and speed.

To­day’s own “ware­house space odyssey” fea­tures voice tech­nol­ogy, wear­able tech­nol­ogy, imager-based scan­ners, and ware­hous­ing sys­tems that tie into trans­porta­tion and la­bor man­age­ment sys­tems, as well as re­tail­ers’ ERP (en­ter­prise re­source plan­ning) sys­tems, to of­fer the ul­ti­mate in vis­i­bil­ity and plan­ning.

“Ac­cu­racy and speed don’t nec­es­sar­ily go to­gether,” notes Tod Hum­mert, prod­uct man­ager, ware­house and trans­porta­tion sys­tems for Du­luth, Ga.-based NCR Corp. “We typ­i­cally have to put more val­i­da­tion within our ap­pli­ca­tions, but we try to do it in a way that doesn’t slow down the users from a pro­duc­tiv­ity stand­point. One of the ways we do that is by us­ing dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies at the same time.”

One of NCR’S re­cent de­vel­op­ments in this arena is a clever in­te­gra­tion with pal­let jacks, which is cur­rently be­ing used by As­so­ci­ated Gro­cers, of Ba­ton Rouge, La., and Mer­chants Dis­trib­u­tors (MDI), a whole­sale gro­cery store dis­trib­u­tor based in Hick­ory, N.C.

“We worked with a fork­lift and pal­let jack man­u­fac­turer to in­te­grate voice in with the pal­let jack,” ex­plains Hum­mert. “The man­u­fac­turer then added light to the pal­let jack for each pal­let po­si­tion. Through voice, we’re send­ing a com­mand to the pal­let jack to light up the pal­let po­si­tion where the se­lec­tor’s go­ing to place the prod­uct. So, as we tell a se­lec­tor to go to a lo­ca­tion, then con­firm the lo­ca­tion, we tell them how many to pick, and then

we tell them to place it on po­si­tion A. Then we send a com­mand to the pal­let jack to light up po­si­tion A. This is just an­other way we can help com­pa­nies to achieve even bet­ter ac­cu­racy.”

In ad­di­tion to this fu­tur­is­tic-sound­ing tech­nol­ogy com­bi­na­tion, NCR is of­fer­ing au­to­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy through for­ma­tion sys­tems, as well as au­to­mated stor­age re­trieval sys­tems (ASRS), con­tin­ues Hum­mert. “One of our larger cus­tomers that’s us­ing the ASRS is As­so­ci­ated Food Stores, out of Salt Lake City,” he notes. “They ac­tu­ally have two dif­fer­ent ver­sions in place … a pal­let-level ASRS, as well as a unit-level or case-level sys­tem. They have a large sor­ta­tion sys­tem that feeds off that as well.

“Any time you can uti­lize au­to­ma­tion, your pro­duc­tiv­ity is go­ing to go up, your ac­cu­racy is go­ing to go up and your uti­liza­tion within the ware­house is go­ing to go up,” adds Hum­mert.

By in­te­grat­ing dif­fer­ent ap­pli­ca­tions within its ware­house man­age­ment sys­tems, NCR can help com­pa­nies in­crease their pro­duc­tiv­ity, he con­tin­ues. “With ware­house man­age­ment sys­tems, ob­vi­ously we man­age the in­ven­tory,” ob­serves Hum­mert. “We also man­age the la­bor, as we have an em­bed­ded la­bor man­age­ment sys­tem within the WMS [ware­house man­age­ment sys­tem] that very tightly im­pacts the op­er­a­tion. And we take ad­van­tage of the fact that it is in­te­grated to make bet­ter de­ci­sions so that we get in­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity. We also man­age the space within the ware­house, as well as the la­bor it­self.”

In fact, Hum­mert says that he’s see­ing a lot of fo­cus on hav­ing tighter in­te­gra­tion with trans­porta­tion on both the in­bound and out­bound sides of the busi­ness. “On the in­bound side, it’s mak­ing sure the prod­uct is com­ing in when you need it and hav­ing vis­i­bil­ity to what’s com­ing in,” he notes. “On the out­bound side, it’s en­sur­ing that trail­ers are in the doors be­fore you need to load them and mak­ing sure you’re op­ti­miz­ing those out­bound loads not only from a cube and weight stand­point, but also from a de­liv­ery stand­point — mak­ing sure you have the right routes con­fig­ured so you can re­duce your over­all mileage and in­crease the pro­duc­tiv­ity of the driv­ers them­selves.”

Built for Speed

In­te­gra­tion is a key busi­ness goal for many third­party lo­gis­tics providers as well. Read­ing, Pa.-based Penske Lo­gis­tics sees ware­hous­ing as just one part of the sup­ply chain that must be closely linked to other facets. “In most in­stances, we have in­te­gra­tion be­tween our cus­tomers’ ERP sys­tems and ei­ther our trans­porta­tion man­age­ment or ware­house man­age­ment sys­tems,” notes Andy Moses, Penske’s SVP of global prod­ucts. “So in­for­ma­tion is com­ing in to us, we’re do­ing var­i­ous types of pro­cess­ing

and trans­ac­tions, and then we’re nor­mally feed­ing back some in­for­ma­tion into the cus­tomers’ sys­tems through th­ese in­te­gra­tions.”

Moses ob­serves that the fresh chan­nel has “ex­ploded” across the food in­dus­try, and that has brought a lot of change in the way busi­ness is done on the back end. “We’re see­ing more fre­quent de­liv­er­ies of fresh goods, and of­ten front-door de­liv­er­ies in the store, ver­sus load­ing docks around the back of the store,” he ex­plains. “We see this as a kind of seg­men­ta­tion within the sup­ply chain, as some gro­cers are tak­ing smaller, fresh items and mov­ing them out of their main­stream sup­ply chain.”

Th­ese changes have ramped up the need for speed in the sup­ply chain, in­clud­ing the fre­quent re­plen­ish­ment of fresh goods.

Don Klug, VP of dis­tri­bu­tion cen­ter man­age­ment for Penske Lo­gis­tics, says that tech­nol­ogy is play­ing a key role in how re­tail­ers are adapt­ing to th­ese changes on the back end of the sup­ply chain. “One ex­am­ple is hav­ing slot­ting as a func­tion­al­ity within a ware­house man­age­ment sys­tem,” he notes. “So you slot your fast movers, or items that need to get out of the build­ing as fast as pos­si­ble, closer to the dock. Then, when you re­ceive those prod­ucts, you can put them away more ef­fi­ciently, and the same goes for when you pick them.”

Other newer, promis­ing tech­nol­ogy he men­tions in­cludes a “speed­line con­cept,” in which or­ders can be picked in smaller quan­ti­ties for a par­tic­u­lar store or for a par­tic­u­lar truck route, as well as task in­ter­leav­ing, which is a func­tion within the WMS that al­lows the user to send tasks via an Rf-based sys­tem, which ul­ti­mately keeps fork­lifts full.

Both of th­ese con­cepts help to in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity, as well as speed to mar­ket and even la­bor re­duc­tion, notes Klug. And in an econ­omy where ware­house work­ers have been hard to come by, tech­nol­ogy’s power to take over me­nial tasks re­quir­ing ac­cu­racy has been par­tic­u­larly pow­er­ful.

The Mo­bile Edge

In ad­di­tion to the im­pres­sive fea­tures be­ing added to ware­house man­age­ment sys­tems, the hard­ware side of tech­nol­ogy is see­ing some ex­cit­ing changes. Mark Wheeler, di­rec­tor of sup­ply chain so­lu­tions — North Amer­ica at Holtsville, N.y.-based Ze­bra Tech­nolo­gies, says that “sys­tems of re­al­ity,” or in­dus­trial IOT so­lu­tions such as sen­sors and an­a­lyt­ics, are help­ing to drive op­er­a­tional vis­i­bil­ity at dif­fer­ent pro­cesses, in­clud­ing yard man­age­ment for trailer load­ing.

“As we’re see­ing more fre­quent re­plen­ish­ment for stores and more cold-chain re­quire­ments, it fil­ters down to the so­lu­tions side, where we’re work­ing with cus­tomers to de­sign new work­flows and to im­ple­ment them in the op­ti­mum way,” he notes. “There’s a ma­jor tran­si­tion at the op­er­at­ing sys­tem level from Win­dows CE to Win­dows Mo­bile to An­droid. And there’s a user in­ter­face tran­si­tion that’s linked to that, in which we’re mov­ing to more touch-ori­ented user in­ter­faces.”

In the ware­houses, he sees a tran­si­tion from laser­based to imager-based scan­ner de­vices, largely driven by the in­dus­try’s en­hanced fo­cus on food safety, and food trace­abil­ity in par­tic­u­lar, which war­rants the need for track­ing two-di­men­sional bar­codes and mul­ti­ple bar­codes at case level and even at each level.

Mean­while, more peo­ple are re­ly­ing on wear­able scan­ning to con­firm that they’re not only han­dling the right prod­uct, but also han­dling the lot num­ber that they al­lo­cated to ful­fill from, he says.

For cold-chain re­quire­ments in par­tic­u­lar, more sup­pli­ers are in­te­grat­ing tem­per­a­ture sen­sors into “smart tags” so that they can track not only the tem­per­a­ture of prod­ucts, but also the tem­per­a­tures that the prod­uct was ex­posed to through­out its ship­ment, con­tin­ues Wheeler.

This past April, Ze­bra Tech­nolo­gies rolled out Smart Pack Trailer, an an­a­lyt­ics-based so­lu­tion that pro­vides vis­i­bil­ity into how trail­ers are loaded, what per­cent ca­pac­ity is be­ing used, what per­cent com­plete the load is and how to project the com­ple­tion time on a par­tic­u­lar trailer. All of this in­for­ma­tion is im­me­di­ately avail­able to the mo­bile man­ager in the ware­house, he notes.

“Th­ese prod­ucts are al­ways on … al­ways look­ing at pro­cesses and keep­ing de­ci­sion-mak­ers in sync with re­al­ity,” ob­serves Wheeler.

“Re­al­ity” is the ideal word, since the need for real-time ac­cu­racy and pro­duc­tiv­ity makes gro­cery dis­tri­bu­tion tech any­thing but sci­ence fic­tion.

As we’re see­ing more fre­quent re­plen­ish­ment for stores and more cold-chain re­quire­ments, it fil­ters down to the so­lu­tions side, where we’re work­ing with cus­tomers to de­sign new work­flows and to im­ple­ment them in the op­ti­mum way. — Mark Wheeler Ze­bra Tech­nolo­gies

FAR OUT New imager-based scan­ning de­vices can read bar­codes from up to 70 feet away.

VOICE OF REA­SON NCR Corp. is com­bin­ing voice with other tech­nolo­gies to im­prove load ac­cu­racy.

LA­BOR GAINS By sync­ing WMS with la­bor man­age­ment sys­tems, com­pa­nies are able to see more vis­i­ble met­rics around pro­duc­tiv­ity.

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