Efficiency in motion

Algebra was never Clive Fearns favourite subject but when it came to working out how to make the Zebra distribution warehouse in Preston, UK more efficient, he kept coming back to the kind of mathematical problems he was set in school. If it takes one man three hours to walk one mile and five men to unload a delivery, how much time could they save if they did not have to walk back and forth to a printer to fetch their packing labels?

This efficiency problem is not unique. Many warehouse managers despair at the time that is wasted as their teams trudge back and forth collecting labels to match against packages. The challenge for them is to reduce the walking, the wasted time and boost efficiency, which in turns improves operations across the board.

Many routes in, many routes out
Zebras Preston-based distribution centre (DC) is the hub for the delivery of all its auto identification products sold in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The centre receives goods from suppliers and factories worldwidemany of which are ready for immediate dispatch to its resellers. As each item is received, its product bar code is scanned and matched against a delivery sheet to ensure correct identification. The goods are then packed according to information generated using the bar code and are then stored in the warehouse.

However, not all items delivered to the Zebra DC are labelled individually. Often, multiple packages arrive that need to be split down into individual units. Also, some suppliers deliver crates containing many different types of item, all delivered with one packing instruction and one bar code. In such circumstances the individual units need to be bar coded so that they can be stored correctly and retrieved successfully later.

Fearn said: This was the part that we found tricky. The goods were scanned and matched by our Baan ERP system, which sent a print message to a label printer. Operators would have to leave their stations to collect the labels from the printer and return with them to label all the items that they had scanned. It was a bottleneck in the process with people walking back and forth across the warehouse. As all the labels were printed from the same printer, four or five people would be rummaging amongst them to select their own. The margin for error was larger than we would have liked as there was always a possibility that the items would be mislabelled.

Not as easy as you may think
One solution to the problem would be to install separate printers for each of the operators. This, however, would have been extremely complex and costly. Each printer would need to be wired into the network and have its own station. The wiring, the space and the costs ruled this option out.

 Its not just a case of scanning a label and having that replicated by a printer that could be done simply by providing our operators with a mobile barcode printer. We need to check the incoming goods against the inventory system on our ERP solution and then generate specific labels for warehousing. Any printer would have to be connected to our network for it to be able to produce the labels we need, said Fearn.

"If it takes one man three hours to walk one mile and five men to unload a delivery, how much time could they save if they did not have to walk back and forth to a printer to fetch their packing labels?"

Wireless solution
The Preston DC upgraded its stationary label printer to Zebra QL420 wireless-enabled mobile printers. Workers receiving the deliveries now have their own mobile printers either attached to their belts or worn with a shoulder strap. This means that items arriving without the appropriate labelling can be scanned and a label printed on demand. There is no more walking and no chance of labels being confused.

Fearn continues: We already had a radio frequency network that we installed in 1998 which we used as a basis for the system. Upgrading the network to the 802.11.B standard gave us 11 MB of bandwidth creating fast wireless connections to run the new system over. Now, goods are scanned and verified by the ERP system that sends back the information to generate new labels to lightweight portable printers being used by the operators. The whole process is easy now.

The benefits
As a result of the implementation, the DC has seen three main benefits:

Process Improvement. The warehouse team has achieved near 100% accuracy for the labelling of its inward-bound goods. The savings in terms of not misplacing goods and being able to fulfil orders is immense.

Time saving. Thirty minutes per person per day are saved in goods inward.

Flexibility. The team no longer relies on a single printer to handle the label printing for all the operators. The new solution offers a greatly improved contingency in the rare event of a system failure.

Fearn says: The QL420 printers save us time, money and space. In fact, the time that we save in not fetching labels alone will make them pay for themselves in just 12 months. On top of that we have a more flexible, more reliable solution. Rolling the same printers out to be used in other applications, such as goods picking will ultimately make the investment even more worthwhile.

The final answer
So, if it takes one man three hours to walk one mile and five men to unload a delivery how much time could they save if they didnt have to walk back and forth to a printer to fetch their packing labels? Fearn now knows that its 30 minutes per person per day thanks to using a mobile print solution.

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