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Posted Date: 1/27/2012

SMB Warehouses Move Beyond Barebones Tech

By Julie Ritzer Ross
Unlike many other SMB sectors served by the channel, warehouses and distribution centers have yet to become hotbeds of state-of-the-art technology. For example, few players have, as of now, emulated their larger counterparts by adopting robotic systems. However, applications once considered appropriate almost exclusively for larger entities are now becoming a reality within the SMB space.

Tearing Up the Spreadsheets
One example meriting attention is a move by an increasing number of SMBs away from warehouse management via spreadsheet to comprehensive warehouse management systems (WMS), says Jerry McNerney, senior director, enterprise marketing, Motorola Solutions (www.motorolasolutions.com). “They see the benefit not just in terms of improving the volume of product that can be moved each day, but in terms of enhancing their overall ability to do business,” McNerney asserts. Moreover, alternate ‘as-a-service methods’ of software delivery have only pushed this envelope farther, the executive adds.

The O’Brien Brass Company, a Twinsburg, Ohio-based distributor of brass products for the automotive and heavy-duty industrial markets, recently engaged solutions provider Miles Technologies, Lake Zurich, Ill., to configure a WMS application that would address a spate of inventory management issues. Its inventory control system was based on static locations by SKU, meaning that any alterations to the sales and inventory mix led to inefficient use of physical warehouse space. Because pickers had no access to real-time data, product frequently remained untouched in storage despite its availability for use in filling orders. Picking accuracy was not adequate as a result of being manually directed, with the static location system sparking additional errors when items with similar SKU numbers and a nearly identical appearance were placed next to each other in the warehouse.

Miles Technologies specified for O’Brien Brass its INVision warehouse management software, delivered via the software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, along with Motorola MC3090 mobile computers. Offering the client the option of utilizing INVision in SaaS fashion rather than in an installed mode, thereby avoiding the large upfront investment associated with most WMS installs, helped to seal the deal, notes Miles Technologies President Tom Beusch.

With the system in place, pickers can tap into the terminals to obtain real-time, SKU-level inventory balances that are updated as pick information is scanned into the terminals. The software accounts for work-in-process (e.g., product in the process of being picked), thereby enhancing overall accuracy and ensuring that orders do not remain unfilled because pickers are unaware that necessary inventory in the warehouse. Warehouse locations can be assigned on the fly, allowing for more efficient use of shelf space and reducing the potential for errors when nearly identical products are placed next to each other.

In a somewhat narrower vein, track-and-trace applications—at one time deployed by Tier 1 warehouse players—are garnering significant interest downstream. This trend is being heavily driven by government regulations and other initiatives designed to afford insight into the origin of product and its progress through the supply chain and, more importantly, facilitate recalls where necessary, according to Bruce Stubbs, director of industry marketing, Intermec (www.intermec.com). The industry-led Produce Traceability Initiative, which calls for achieving produce traceability at the case level by the end of 2012, is one such undertaking.

Stubbs cites a track-and-trace application configured by Intermec reseller partner and ISV Pacific iD of Renton, Wash., as an example of the scope of track-and-trace applications VARs are currently being called upon to design for SMB warehouses. The client, Washington Fruit and Produce Co., Yakima, Wash., ranks among Washington state’s largest shippers of apples; its inventory management system comprises Intermec CK3 mobile computers, CV60 vehicle-mount computers, SR61ex scanners and PM4i printers.
The track-and-trace component of the system kicks in after apples arriving at the Yakima facility have been sanitized, washed, waxed, graded, sorted and sent to a packing station for placement into boxes. Full boxes are stamped human-readable data and two barcodes. One barcode is a Global Tracking and Identification Number (GITN) for food traceability compliance; the other, an in-house serial number.

Generated with the PM4i units, the barcodes contain all necessary information pertaining to the fruit inside each box, including type, grade, when it was picked and from which of the company’s orchards it comes. The barcodes are scanned before the boxes are put onto pallets, thus allowing Washington Fruit not only to locate any affected apples—should problems surface once they have been shipped—but also to readily identify and
address problems with a particular orchard.

RFID Redux
Meanwhile, although the recession forced many SMBs to postpone planned RFID implementations or dissuaded them from even considering the technology, economic improvements have caused a gradual turning of the tides. So, too, have the demands of customers in a few key verticals, most notably retail.

“Even retailers that don’t play anywhere near Wal-Mart on the field want to see RFID tagging used to expedite the movement of merchandise through the supply chain and to increase the accuracy of orders,” McNerney asserts. “Chances are, these days, that if you’re selling jeans to an apparel chain, they’re going to want RFID. Plain and simple.”

For his part, Stubbs points to louder cries among SMB warehouse operators of all stripes for RFID applications that enable internal asset-tracking. “There are a lot of possibilities here, from tracking equipment that is used in the warehouse to monitoring whatever happens to be stored there,” he says. He adds that in the not-too-distant future, SMB track-and-trace applications will leverage RFIDs as an adjunct to or replacement for barcodes.

Similarly, voice-directed warehouse applications are gathering steam as SMBs recognize the full value of such technology and come to understand that they need not upgrade their legacy warehouse management systems (WMS) prior to looking at voice, says Chris Sweeney, senior vice president of Lucas Systems, an ISV and reseller/integrator headquartered in Pittsburgh.

“There is a widespread misperception that voice-directed warehouse applications provide nothing more than a voice interface to a WMS,” Sweeney asserts. “As a result, many warehouse operations and IT managers believe they need to upgrade their legacy WMS before looking at voice. However, a ‘voice-first’ system can deliver significant advantages over a WMS-first approach. It can be deployed much faster than a full WMS implementation and offers a rapid ROI.  In addition, the cost savings achieved through voice can help fund a WMS upgrade later.”

Sweeney cites the case of Eby-Brown, a mid-sized, Naperville, Illinois-based distributor to the convenience store industry. Lucas Systems implemented its Jennifer VoicePlus voice-directed warehouse solution in seven Eby-Brown warehouses while the latter’s legacy WMS was still in place; a transition to SAP (www.sap.com) WMS has since been executed.

The Jennifer VoicePlus system at Eby-Brown supports voice-directed order selection across multiple picking styles and products, ranging from bulk and foodservice items to candy, health/beauty aids and other “piece-pick” products. As is the case with all Jennifer VoicePlus systems, it supports voice and scanning interchangeably, using the integrated scanners on the company’s Motorola MC9000 and MC3000 mobile computers. This flexibility, coupled with the potential of the voice mode to reduce human error, has delivered a 46 percent reduction in product shortages and picking productivity gains of about 30 percent to 40 percent, Sweeney claims.

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