Manufacturing & Logistics IT spoke with end users within a number of separate vertical sectors about their hands-on experiences with Auto ID solutions in addition to gaining insight into their future system deployment plans and how they see technology evolving over the next few years.
Throughout the end-user community, the consensus is very much that Automatic Data Capture solutions in various guises have positively transformed not only the efficiency of everyday operational processes involved in many companies business, but also the quality of their service offering to customers. Processes can become more automated, requiring substantially less manual input; and this in turn enables firms to expand quicker and more easily implement new technology. Virtually no vertical goods supply sector is out of reach of the potential benefits of such technology.
figleaves.com, for example, is a major global online supplier of branded underwear, swimwear, exercisewear, nightwear and hosiery for men and women. The companys available ranges span all the well-known brands; from Wonderbra through to top-of-the-range designer lines such as Malizia by La Perla. From the perspective of Jamie Ovenden, systems architect and infrastructure manager at figleaves.com, the key Auto ID benefits to end users revolve around the fact that the technology is faster and easier to use than other alternatives. In addition, he also points out that, with higher level of automation at play, there are reductions in running costs to be had. Specifically with regard to figleaves.coms solutions choices, the company relies on a bespoke warehouse picking application running on Casio DT-X7 barcode scanning terminals.
All products are catalogued by barcode, with server-side applications understanding physically where each item is in the warehouse, along with its size and weight, said Ovenden. We then group orders together into pick routes and download to an individual handheld unit. The client application then directs the user to each location with a trolley loaded with various sized dispatch boxes and requires the scanning of the location and item to confirm. Then, items are scanned into the relevant dispatch box. The DT-X7s are also used for the receiving of goods and stocking of shelves.
figleaves.coms system was first put in place back in 2003. Prior to this, we used a similar methodology of barcode scanning products, but the picking devices were trolley-based devices; not handheld, meaning they were extremely hard to maneuver and slow, explained Ovenden. So we moved to a bespoke fulfilment system using Casio IT-500 handheld systems. These were then replaced in 2008 with the Casio DT-X7. The move to DT-X7 was technology-based (.net 2.0, with the potential to move to .net 3.5). We needed a robust, lightweight warehouse device with a small form factor (without a touch screen) that we could port our existing client application to with the minimum of fuss. We had been happy with our original choice of Casio, so started to talk to them immediately about a replacement.
Ovenden added that the client software figleaves.com had was compatible with the new device and the only major changes necessary were in the client interface; moving from a touch screen to a key-coded input system. Casio recommended a third-party software house for implementation and after several project initiation meetings the work was undertaken.
Critical field service
And what about companies supplying critical services in the field? MITIE is a strategic outsourcing and asset management company employing 49,000 personnel throughout the UK. MITIE self-delivers a range of soft services, including the specialist activity of pest control. A little over 100 mobile technicians usually working solo and some in pairs are supplied with data capture devices. Primarily, each service technician is issued with a handheld Honeywell Dolphin 7900, selected by the company for their robustness, ease of use and long battery life. Additionally, supervisors and service managers are supplied with Motorola MC35 mobile handheld computers. These were selected due to their proven ability to capture quality colour photographs. The Dolphin units use the scanners ability to capture basic black and white photographs.
Our sales offering has moved from the technical ability of the on-site technicians to the transfer of management information in real time, explained MITIEs managing director, Peter Trotman. This information has many recommendations and management interactions which our customers are reliant upon to ensure pest free premises. Many of our customers view this data transfer now as the most valuable aspect of the service delivery.
MITIEs data capture programme went live in February 2007, following six months procurement and development. Prior to this, we were heavily reliant on paper-based systems, said Trotman. This involved print outs of work schedules being sent to the remote service technicians via fax. The technician then arriving on site completing an audit inspection form; this form was then posted at the end of the week back to Head Office. Manual data input was transferred from the audit inspection report into a SQL database named SAFE (Statistics Analysis Facts and Evidence). From this data catch, net reports were sent to operational personnel to ensure service compliance and a variety of customer facing reports were sent through to qualify work status and KPIs. This process was heavily reliant on manual data input, technicians diligently posting work back, the postal system delivering all sent items and the head office personnel selecting the right pieces of information for data entry. Throughout this process there were many areas that could fail and at the very best would only allow us to have accurate information that was two weeks old.
As a limited company within a group plc, each company chose their own IT solution for their business needs. Trotman continued: We were therefore reliant on selecting a strategic business partner for the IT solution that could: develop our existing SQL database SAFE, deliver a wider variety of functionality particularly customer facing reports; advise on the selection of hardware; supply and maintain the hardware; deliver a mobile software solution; deliver asset tracking and vehicle tracking solutions; and develop a customer web-based portal for real-time transparent reporting.
Over a three-month process, MITIE surveyed the market and found a number of specialist suppliers; many which had specialist strengths in a number of these areas but few that could deliver the whole package as a one-stop shop. According to Trotman, Codegate had specialty in mobile software solutions while also having competence in all the other areas. The company was therefore were selected on the basis of its ability to form a strategic alliance. All personnel were involved in this project, said Trotman. Office staff and operational managers welcomed the principals that the system could deliver. Service technicians were initially resistant to change; however, they soon realised the feature benefits of the software solution and the way they were able to speed up their work activities and reduce paper-based reports. They accepted the solution and played an active part in the software development functionality.
A road show of training and user acceptance was undertaken. However, in hindsight, Trotman felt this was inadequate to gain the required quality of data input, and a significant level of follow-up training was delivered. Due to the advanced automation of our processes, the correct data entry is now vital for business activities and an online training system has been developed for the use of data capture, he explained. The single largest teething problem was the consistency of GPRS reception with the mobile network, especially in the geographic areas of the South-East coast, mid-Wales and some areas ofScotland. Trotman pointed out that, because the GPRS service delivered by the mobile network operator was found wanting, MITIE had to withdraw some PDAs and revert back to local paperwork systems in these areas.
Initially, SAFE and the customer portal e-pest was primarily designed as a tool to monitor and implement operation service visits to a client and for the details of these visits to be presented live on a customer portal. There was no interface with accounts package or other divisions within MITIE. However, through further enhanced development, SAFE has been expanded to include HR profiles of service technicians and other operational staff, automated timesheets for payroll and, most recently, an interface with the accounts package SAP, Trotman explained. Significant enhancements have been made to the job scheduling functionality and to monitor the performance of each technician group and overall company. Therefore, since its initial launch in February 2007 there have been significant developments, and SAFE now feeds different interfaces and reporting systems, which is the heart of the company. Interestingly, Trotman reports that this has been so successful that another division of MITIE Landscaping, employing approximately 450 staff has just started to test SAFE and will shortly be adopting the system as its main operational system.
100 per cent accuracy
RFID is an Auto ID technology that is increasingly gaining uptake in the end-user marketplace, with a growing number of end users reporting a raft of tangible cost-and time-saving benefits; as well as increased data capture accuracy. One company within an increasingly long list of success stories is NGF Europe, manufacture of specialised Glass Cord products, used mainly in the automotive industry for the reinforcement of synchronous drive belts. NGF Europes Glass Cord product is shipped to customers on bobbins. The cord is sensitive to ultra-violet light and humidity, so NGF Europe wraps each bobbin with approximately twenty layers of black polywrap material. Barcode labels are then applied to this outer wrapping.NGF Europe wanted the ability to verify and validate the original ID label applied to the actual bobbin and compare it to the label on the outer packaging to ensure 100 per cent accuracy in identifying product. This process is impossible to perform with standard barcode labelling and is only achievable with RFID technology, said NGF Europes manufacturing development technician, Peter Lai.
NGF Europe chose theAtlanta8000 Series by Belgravium to fulfil all its scanning requirements, with software being written in-house. According to Lai, another important feature of RFID tagging technology is that it offers the ability to include large amounts of customer-specific data on the label, whilst maintaining the same form factor as the original barcode labels. And customers of NGF Europe that have yet to deploy RFID can still use the information supplied by the over-printed barcode on the label, as they have always done.
NGF Europe first introduced RFID in 2006. The previous scanning system was DOS-based and sourced externally, explained Lai. This system served its purpose but did not provide the flexibility to make changes. Any changes that needed to be made were expensive and extremely time consuming to implement. In the past, poor read rates have been estimated to have cost NGF Europe in excess of 25,000 per annum; a cost that has reportedly been eliminated since the implementation of RFID. As more of our customers move over to RFID, we will realise further savings, said Lai. And the removal of the second serial number barcode, leaving only the RFID tag, will cut costs by a further 18,500 per annum.
NGF Europe also has plans to integrate its scanning system into its ERP solution to enable point-and-shoot transactions. Alongside this, the company is also looking into a Proof of Delivery (POD) application extending from production right through to the end customer. NGF Europe was excited by the potential that RFID represented with regard to possible process improvements. According to Lai, that potential has been realised and some major operational improvements secured. To date, the implementation of RFID technology has focused on the NGF Europe operation. Alistair Poole, marketing manager at NGF Europe, views the technology as a key product and service enhancement in terms of helping our customers meet the ever increasing demands from global automotive manufacturers for improved traceability and mistake proofing.
Barcoded freight tracking
However, barcoded freight tracking, rather than RFID, sits at the core of palletised freight network company Pall-Exs operations. Sean Sherwin-Smith, Pall-Exs IT director, points out that RFID would create considerable savings but for the companys operational environment. We view RFID as a complementary technology to barcodes rather than a sole tracking solution, he said. Within the pallet network sector, consignments travel one way and the stationery used for the tracking label is produced from a laser printer. To deploy RFID label printers to every depot and customer in our network would be extremely cost-prohibitive.
Cross-docking up to 10,000 time-critical consignments a night through the hub places considerable demands on the operation and the IT that ensures Pall-Ex captures data accurately without impacting on efficiency. It is imperative that we have a reliable and robust data capture solution supported by rapid response vendor who understands the business criticality of even a single unit being out of action, remarked Sherwin-Smith. Operating 37 fork lifts, all using the Rhino Datalogic terminals supplied by Codeway, Pall-Ex has reportedly seen a dramatic increase in the accuracy of scanning through the hub. Sherwin-Smith explained that the company started using the Datalogic terminals after conducting a thorough trial of other competitor units.
As a partner, Codeway gave Pall-Ex access to various solutions and actively worked with the company to find the best fit for its operations. Codeway has supported their use throughout the integration programme, developing the software and sense-checking our role out programme as our previous scanners just couldnt handle the speed of the operation, he said. The results from implementing the Datalogic terminals have been very positive, according to Sherwin-Smith. The only teething problem we had was with some of the screens whiting out, which Datalogic was quick to diagnose and develop a patch for. We are currently trialing this and to date have not experienced any further problems.
Pall-Exs previous solution was physically mounted to forklift trucks. The company worked on the theory that it could simply drive up to the pallet, insert the forks and scan the pallet as the task was performed. Sherwin-Smith explained that the solution was not fit for such a high-speed operation and first-time scan accuracy was at an unacceptable level. We ended up shelving the project, and back to basics is how I would describe our current solution using a handheld, long-range scanners suspended on a rip cord within the forklifts, which in turn is connected to the Datalogic units. The rugged design of the units and processes means that our first-time scan accuracy is now tipping on 99 per cent.
Food for thought
Henderson Group, the Spar UK wholesaler operating inNorthern Ireland, began implementing data capture technology in itsBelfastdistribution centres around four years ago, and has since seen a transformation in its business as a result. Auto ID technology has helped the company to improve its customer service; in terms of the quality of the products sold through its franchise network of Spar stores, the accuracy of deliveries and delivery service provided to retailers, and in the way it has helped to improve the bottom line by enabling greater operational efficiencies.
At each stage inHendersons supply chain, Zetes has supplied a data capture solution to optimise existing manual processes. Starting in goods receiving,Hendersonsuses MC1990 handheld terminals to capture the quality, shelf life, barcode information on each product stocked. The Media WMS system is a light-touch solution developed and supplied by Zetes. This allowsHendersonsto perform all inclusive product acceptance checks and alerts the company to reject goods that are not fresh to within acceptable limits. It also ensures product weights are as displayed and has pre-set parameters for managing temperature controls for certain items. Moving to puttaways and replenishment, handheld computers are used to manage the storage of incoming goods either into the pick face or reserve areas.Hendersonsuses four vehicle-mounted terminals on forklift trucks and MC1990s to manage the process.
For stock picking,Hendersonsuses Voice-directed technology based on the Vocollect Talkman and 3iV software from Zetes. Voice was initially implemented in the ambient warehouse in 2006, but due to the impressive performance of the system, it has now also been implemented in the chilled warehouse. Using the 3iV software has broughtHendersonsadditional functionality in the form of command manipulation to improve system accuracy. In particular, it has enabled the company to overcome the problem of pickers remembering the original three-digit check codes and applying them when products may have been picked incorrectly.
Using 3iV,Hendersonshas been able to introduce four-digit codes, and reverse order coding to limit the capability of operators to remember the digits and introduce errors into the system. We were finding workers would guess the check digits in an attempt to get ahead of the system, which meant errors were creeping into the process when they used a correct check code but actually picked the wrong products, explained Philip Mehaffey, logistics manager at Hendersons.
In the goods-out loading area,Hendersonsuses MC1990 handhelds together with its own RF loading system, which was developed in-house. This system ensures the right cages are loaded in the right sequence into the right vehicles. Finally, as goods leave the warehouse, an ePOD proof of delivery system is used, which uses MC70 EDAs to track the whereabouts of goods in transit to their final destination. The system also ensures retailers receive fully automated itemised delivery documentation, and provides proof that the correct delivery has indeed been shipped, thus minimising stock losses. The ePOD system formed the final part inHendersons supply chain optimisation programme, and went live in October last year.
More success on the FMCG front can be found at Natures Way Foods, a company that supplies ready-to-eat salads to major multiple supermarkets and leading companies in the food service sector. Auto ID solutions currently being used to good effect within the companys warehouses are LXEs MX7 handheld computers and LXEs VX6 vehicle-mounted computers; all originally being recommended to Natures Way Foods by the companys ERP supplier, CDC Ross. Stuart James, head of business systems at Natures Way Foods, points out that most functionality can be run from the devices; such as pick lists, booking raw materials and dispatching.
Natures Way Foods upgraded its system last December to implement Advanced Ship Notices for a major customer. This comprised an ERP upgrade and replacement of existing distribution centre equipment. The company trialled a number of mobile devices supplied by several vendors to ensure the solution of choice could be fully supported by the ERP system. Technical tests took place, with particular emphasis on determining the devices useability in damp and cold environments. Also, because Natures Way Foods previous equipment was prone to be damaged easily, it was borne in mind that the new devices would need to be highly ruggedised. As part of the upgrade, full testing and simulation of transaction flow was undertaken using all of the equipment and, although there were a couple of minor teething problems, these did not related to the efficacy of the hardware.
End users the next step
So, whats next for these end-user organisations? Sherwin-Smith points out that PallEx is currently conducting an RFID trial with RFTraq. Using the RFTraq technology, we are monitoring trailers in and out of our hub, he said. We are looking to extend this test using a unique repeater technology to register which trailer is backed onto one of our 46 loading bays, and when. According to Sherwin-Smith, RFID offers a lot of opportunities if applied in the right circumstances. There are a lot of companies out there promising the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow without truly understanding the challenges within the logistics space, he said. For asset tracking in a closed-loop environment, the technology is a no brainer. Consignments travelling one way in an open environment becomes a whole different challenge. Ovenden reports that figleaves.com is considering RFID for future use, while Mehaffey points out that Voice remains a key focus forHendersons, which is currently planning to introduce a Voice-directed solution into the frozen foods and food service areas of its business. It is also due to implement ePOD into the fresh warehouse, and subsequently extend its use to frozen and food service. Once this is in place, the company will reportedly have end-to-end traceability across each stage of the supply chain from the moment goods arrive into the warehouse to arrival at their final destination.
Individual or uniform?
And how do the users view the vendor community in terms of offering differentiated or largely commoditised solutions? From Sherwin-Smiths perspective, the vendor community seems to have very few differentiators; however, he maintains that the next big step will be in volumetric measurement using a handheld device. Lai observes that many of the handheld terminals available in the market today are often largely the same in terms of size and functionality, although NGF Europe sourced BelgraviumsAtlanta8000 Series terminals because it recognised size advantages over many other solutions on the market. Ovendens view is that where one vendor goes most will follow. What makes the vendors stand out is managing to create a warehouse tool thats practical for operators to use all day, while retaining the ruggedised form factor needed for continual operation, he added.
Upbeat in a downturn
Moving away from technology to market conditions, has the current economic downturn resulted in any additional hardware/software requirements, or the need to change any business or operational strategies to any notable degree? Sherwin-Smith comments that, like most companies, PallEx has seen changes as a result of the downturn; however, he points out that it has invested, and continues to invest aggressively, in IT both in terms of internal development and external suppliers. The downturn has definitely focused us to a greater degree towards innovation, he said. We are adopting new technologies to increase traditional revenue streams and are also pursuing other nontraditional opportunities. We also recognise the power of partnerships, whether that is with our members, our customers or our suppliers open collaboration benefits drive down cost for everyone and will be the key to survival in these tough times.
Ovenden reflects that any changes that have been made are fairly minimal, although greater diversification of products held within the warehouse has led to back-office system changes to accommodate differing pick routes, different size and weight of objects etc. Lai makes the point that, like any business, NGF Europe must continue to look at ways of reducing its costs and improve efficiency. RFID scanning in our operation certainly helps us to achieve this, he said. For Trotmans part, he remarks that the current market downturn provides greater opportunity for MITIE to present its offering to customers. Clients are now looking at all spend activities, including what is traditionally a very low spend activity of pest control, he said. We are able often to offer cost savings due to our enhanced systems allowing efficiencies and economies of scale. Without our efficiencies through advanced use of data capture, we would not be able to benefit from the market downturn. In James view, more cost-effective solutions are required by end users to ensure they have right technology able to provide world-class quality service at the right price. And on a particularly positive note, Mehaffey reports thatHendersonshas not experienced any downturn in business and is in fact currently enjoying double-digit growth.
Technology reaping results
In terms of key important developments within the Auto ID sphere over the past few years, Sherwin-Smith is quick to highlight wireless data transmission. This, in general, sits up there with the invention of the wheel, he said, adding: Also, whilst not a technology, the convergence strategy of mobile hardware manufacturers has transformed how almost all companies operate. Ovenden cites a number of technologies: wireless developments, RFID, Bluetooth, software functionality, improved ruggedised hardware terminals, and simple real-time transfer of data to back office systems via radio frequency technology. However, he adds that, for figleaves.com, the handheld units themselves have been key, as they have become smaller, more lightweight, more robust, with a faster Central Processing Unit, more memory and with higher data transfer speeds. He remarks that these improvements have enabled a significant change in the way figleaves.com works and how the company has managed to enhance productivity.
As for anticipated technological leaps, Sherwin-Smith again cites volumetric measurement using handhelds. This will potentially be the new must have data application, reducing waste and increasing efficiency, he said. In the medium term, Sherwin-Smith has witnessed Open Source continuing to gain more credence in the business world. And it cant be long before applications start appearing in distribution, warehouse and manufacturing environments; which will put considerable focus on original hardware development and support, he remarked.
Sherwin-Smith adds that RFID may be a fairly obvious selection within the context of whats to come. However, with the advancement of conductive particle polymer inks, he believes we will see an explosion of intelligent packaging, signalling a rapid rise in the use of RFID data capture technologies. Lai also raises the topic of RFID once again, arguing that as the label costs are reduced then more and more manufacturers will see the benefit. Ovenden, too, anticipates that RFID uptake will continue to grow. He also anticipates higher levels of automation and less requirement for the user input data to confirm an item (eg. a barcode scan), as well as increased use of wireless communication.
In addition, Sherwin-Smith maintains that we shouldnt overlook the advent of green solutions either fully recyclable hardware and more common place usage of RF trackable assets (for example, pallets). From Mehaffeys perspective, he believes that there will be more moves towards Voice-directed technology. Lai, too, believes Voice, as well as RFID, will be the areas to watch in the coming months and years.