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Scanning the horizon: a warehouse inventory system for the enterprise.

Enterprise computing is making a mark in virtually every industry, with technologies and systems that put information in the hands of the people that need it to do their jobs effectively. This is even true in the labyrinthine world of warehouse inventory, which has never been known as a showcase for advanced information systems. But at J.R. Simplot, a large manufacturing and agricultural food processing company, front-line warehouse workers are keeping inventory on track with state-of-the-art technologies that leave other inventory systems in the dark ages.

With $2 billion in annual revenues and 10,000 employees, J.R. Simplot is a big name in the food warehousing business. The company owns seven large warehouses in Idaho, Oregon, California, North Dakota and Washington. Each warehouse stores millions of packages of frozen french fries and other products sold to food service companies and restaurants--including McDonald's. Around the clock and seven days a week, forklift drivers and other employees use state-of-the-art wireless scanning technology to store inventory information in a huge database. As a result, warehouse personnel can ensure that products are never misplaced and that customers receive their orders on time. Because the advanced relational database technology is so efficient, the company saves an estimated $100,000 per year in labor costs alone.

Of course, computers are no strangers to the managers and administrators in J.R. Simplot's Boise, Idaho headquarters, where 12 Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) VAX minicomputers run corporate applications. But using computer technology to keep track of inventory is a new experience for warehouse workers. "The new warehouse system was created specifically to be used by blue collar workers, not office workers," explains Ray Sasso, J.R. Simplot's corporate information officer. "It was really driven by the needs of the people who actually do the work."

A Paper Chase

Prior to 1991, warehouse workers relied on a largely manual method of keeping tabs on J.R. Simplot's voluminous inventory. They were having a tough time retaining control over 6,000 different products, each with its own code and complex set of accompanying data--including product date, producer, quantity, production line, quality information and more. Warehouse workers used a magnetic board to indicate location of the product, while every other important piece of information was kept on handwritten lists, then stored in huge filing cabinets.

Each time any of the 100 workers in any given warehouse moved a product or added inventory, the paper chase was on. Employees would spend much of their time just trying to keep up with some 20,000 changes in data per day. As a result, it was difficult to locate lost inventory lists or goods, and occasionally customers didn't get what they ordered. "Our inventory-keeping methods were very inaccurate, and things would get lost," recalls Sasso. "It was very expensive and labor-intensive to keep up because of all the adjustments that we had to make to any one given piece of inventory."

Computing for the Enterprise

In 1991, Sasso began a pilot program designed to automate the process of organizing and tracking the movement and storage of inventory. One option was to store data on a centralized database that ran on the VAX computers in the main office. But each warehouse needed its own quasi-autonomous system, because inventory varies from warehouse to warehouse. The best solution, Sasso reasoned, would be to set up a client/server system in each warehouse, each with its own database residing on a server. Using a wide-area network, the company could also connect the individual servers to the VAX computers at headquarters. Says Sasso: "We wanted to deploy client server systems in each warehouse that would work independently, but that we could also integrate into our computer center eventually. We also needed a system that could handle all the changes in data without introducing any errors." Another long term goal is to integrate the warehouse information with corporate applications, where sales, marketing, administration, and other departments can access it.

It was critical, adds Sasso, to select a flexible, high-performance, client/server database that would run under UNIX on Digital servers. The system would need to provide 24-hour-a-day reliability, and an open architecture that would allow it to be eventually integrated with J.R. Simplot's order management system. Based on these requirements, J.R. Simplot chose the SYBASE relational database management system to run on a Digital 5200 ULTRIX server in each warehouse. "We wanted to set up a network of client/server applications that could be scaled to the enterprise, because that's the direction we plan on taking our corporate information systems," Sasso notes. "We also needed the flexibility offered by client/server architecture."

The Barcode Solution

Since temperatures inside the warehouses are -20 F, workers need more than down jackets and a hardy constitution. They also need tools that can withstand being taken in and out of the extreme cold without suffering malfunctions. J.R. Simplot's new warehouse system, which took 18 months to develop, incorporates Norand Scanners and BARCO readers specially designed to withstand temperature extremes.

The automated inventory process begins when the product comes into the warehouse on a "palletizer"-- a device that takes cases, binds them, and stacks them on pallets. At the palletizer station is a Digital server nunning a 450 megabyte SYBASE database, as well as a Prodigy bar-code printer. Any known information about the product from the company's order processing system is downloaded to SYBASE and a bar-code tag is printed.

"The system knows what product is coming off of what line and uses that information to make up the barcoded tag," explains Sasso. "The operator just enters the time, product code, day code, line code, plant, etc.; these are all printed by the palletizer operator who slaps the barcode on the pallet."

The lift driver then picks up the pallet, scans in the code and stores the pallet in its assigned warehouse location, which is recorded by the driver using a hand-held "radio frequency" device. The cellular phonelike device communicates via antenna to SYBASE. Any time a product is to be moved within or from the warehouse, the lift driver scans the tag with the barcode reader to verify that it's the right product. Once it's moved, the product is automatically "decrimented" from inventory.

Less Labor, Better Labor

According to the Sasso, J.R. Simplot has seen significant improvements in productivity and labor efficiency since the implementation of the new warehouse system. Because the system requires a fraction of the labor of the former paper-based methods, the company has been able to reduce its warehouse staff by 20 percent, saving an estimated $100,000 a year. In addition, shipping volume is up 30 percent, while misshipments have gone from three percent to a fraction of a percent.

Currently, the client/server system has been deployed to two warehouses in Caldwell and Heyburn, Idaho. By 1995, the system will be installed in all seven J.R. Simplot warehouses. Within five years, J.R. Simplot will have integrated the warehouse information with other corporate applications including production, quality control, sales, marketing, and accounting, all managed by a single SYBASE database running on a VAX in corporate headquarters. As a result, says Sasso, "The people in accounting will know instantly what to add or subtract from the books, and the salespeople will know exactly what's in inventory."

While J.R. Simplot's long-term vision of enterprise computing is to tie all the company's information resources together, the company has already accomplished a critical first step--to empower front-line workers with information and give them the tools to do a better, more satisfying job. "Everybody likes to do a good job--and the new system gives the warehouse workers a state-of-the-art tool for doing their jobs much more efficiently and with less error," says Sasso. "As a result, they feel much more positive about their work and the company can be assured that it's using employees in the most cost effective manner possible."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Frozen Food Digest, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Fryer, Bronwyn
Publication:Frozen Food Digest
Date:Oct 1, 1993
Words:1325
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