When Unwins, the off-trade drinks retailer, introduced radio frequency (RF) terminals for use with its advanced Chess Logistics Technology warehouse management system (WMS) the result was significant improvements in stock control efficiency and accuracy. Since the RF equipment was installed two years ago, Unwins has boosted order accuracy to nearly 100%, with a 44% reduction in stock over-delivery and 32% fewer under-deliveries.
The retailer, which has also eliminated the need for labour-intensive pre-delivery checks having deployed staff dedicated to that task to more productive duties, estimates that it has reduced warehouse costs by more than £500,000 through its programme of continuous improvement including enhancements to its WMS.
UDS operates a 10,230sq m, 9,500 pallet location warehouse at Dartford. The facility supplies Unwins 419 retail outlets and the 300 customers of its Phillips Newman wholesale business. The warehouse despatches more than 120 million units (a bottle or a single can) a year which is equivalent to 2.3 million units or 150,000 cases a week.
The Chess WMS controls stock for both while ensuring that items can only be assigned to the correct part of the business. However, some of the 1,800 product lines are available to both operations and can be treated as common to each but certain items are reserved for Phillips Newman customers.
Orders range from a single bottle to a full pallet, although 70% of the lines ordered are split case picking. Order picking and stock control has to be carefully managed to reflect the complexity of the distribution operation and high value of some products.
Some special considerations also have to be taken into account due to the nature of some of the products. Weight can be an issue and, when assembling orders it makes sense to place canned beer at the bottom of a stack with wines and spirits on top for increased load stability and to reduce the risk of breakages. Also, wines require careful handling and should not be exposed to major temperature flunctuations.
Unwins originally installed its Chess WMS in 1995 – it replaced a paper-driven operation. The WMS “performed well” and allowed Unwins to manage its stock effectively but as the business grew the company recognised it needed greater sophistication. The decision to introduce RF equipment to interface with the Chess WMS was taken as part of an operational view that led to several changes in the warehouse.
RF terminals that enabled staff to interact directly with the WMS offered several potential benefits – real-time stock control, increased data accuracy, improved productivity, and the elimination of the need for paper picking lists and other documentation.
More than 60 handheld RF terminals with built-in barcode scanner from Psion-Teklogix were selected by Unwins because of their robustness to cope with prolonged use in a busy warehouse. They also offered a simple upgrade path to scan-based operations if that is what Unwins requires in the future. Warehouse staff each collects a RF terminal at the start of their shift and must enter a PIN and password before they can start work. They are then allocated an order to pick and given a set of pallet labels to attach to the completed load when it is assembled.
Kevin Harris, late shift manager at Unwins, comments: “Some people thought the scanners would be difficult to use but they are really just like mobile phones. The trick was designing a system with as few keystrokes as possible.”
The Chess WMS presents the full picking list to the operator on-screen with information including the product, its location and the number of units to be picked. Operators have some flexibility in how they work but must pick beer lines first followed by wines and then spirits. At the correct location the operator makes the pick and confirms its completion using the terminal to respond to an on-screen prompt and by entering a check digit found on the racking. The WMW asks the operator to reconfirm the pick if there is a discrepancy or allows them to move on to the next item if all is correct.
Historically, beer and wine were picked separately but they are now worked as a single order, making the process more efficient. There is also less chance of an item being missed because one person is responsible for the entire order.
Picking is carried out at first, for some spirits, second level using low level order pickers. Higher level storage accommodates palletised loads that can be handled into picking locations at any time using reach trucks when authorised by the WMS. Once complete the order is taken to a marshalling area where pallets are wrapped ready for loading on to delivery vehicles.
The Chess WMS also handles stock rotation so that the oldest available products are picked first. The same system applies where products have best before dates.
Harris says: “Truck drivers and order pickers no longer have piles of paper to wade through. It used to take all afternoon to print the papers for the warehouse but we don’t do this now. All we do is print and attach the pallet labels. If you told anyone here we were going back to paper they wouldn’t be happy.”
David Harrold, managing director of Unwins Wine Group’s distribution subsidiary UDS, says: “RF has eliminated lots of bottlenecks. For example, in the past a location was often empty when a picker wanted to pick. With real-time stock control the system knows immediately when product availability is getting low and can instruct a reach truck driver to replenish before it holds up our operations. When we relied on visual checks and paper-based picking we had too many ‘out of dates’ and ‘lost pallets’. Now we can see the progress of picking and we know where everything is.”
The combination of Chess WMS and RF has had dramatic effects in other parts of Unwins’ business. Stock checks are easier and more accurate which has allowed Unwins to reduce the number from four to two each year. Also stock rotation is better organised and more efficient and the number of annual turns has risen from 11 to 13.4, which means Unwins is using available space more effectively and there is less demand for additional capacity even though business has increased.
However, while Harrold estimates that operating costs have been cut by £500,000, he believes there is still room for improvement. He explains: “We know that stock control is working properly so now we can concentrate on errors in the warehouse and who is making them. We can monitor picking efficiency and see how each operator is performing. Regular reviews with individuals help identify areas for improvement. We don’t scan at present but have the capacity if we want it, for example for high value products or to introduce additional monitoring on specific lines or operators.”
Harrold continues: “We believe it’s important for people to take ownership of their responsibilities. Management of WMS is now devolved to the warehouse so I can concentrate on developing our operations and increasing product availability.”
Chess Logistics and Psion-Teklogix are just two of nearly 100 market leading suppliers that will be exhibiting at Logistics Link 2004, being held on February 3 and 4 at Sandown Park, Esher, Surrey. For further information about Logistics Link 2004 contact Richard Milbourn on 020 8661 1160 or visit www.logisticslink.co.uk.