Data is power

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Data can make or break a supply chain. But with ever more sophisticated means of capturing and processing it, the big questions are what data do you need, and what should you do with it?

Increasingly data capture is being viewed as more than just a tool to make workflows quicker. The real-time information that can be fed into the back end of a WMS is a valuable resource, providing visibility with potential to inform modifications, or even total transformation of a supply chain.

When looking at what data capture system is best to reinvigorate an operation, there is a huge number of options. Whether to go for voice, barcodes, near field communication devices or a mixture will depend on the particulars of the operation in question, and how the nature of the products fit the data capture method and devices.

RFID has seen great success in fashion businesses, such as Hugo Boss, Dazzle, and even Walmart is focusing its RFID drive on fashion lines. Clothes “fit” with RFID, because they are relatively high price items, which are often packed or hung with various combinations of size, style and colour items, with little access for a visual scan. Whereas groceries, particularly metal packaged goods and liquid products, are a challenge for the frequencies involved.

However 2D codes work perfectly well with groceries and pharmaceuticals in particular, where the traceability and individual item history they can offer is a bonus if not required. 2D is also suited to small items because of the relative easiness of scanning, and the low cost as codes can be created by standard industrial printers.

Logistics firm DSV has begun using a digital pen, provided by Destiny Wireless for proof of delivery. The logistics firm sees it as a viable alternative to PDAs, and as particularly suited for its mobile work force because it is small, light, intuitive to use, and relatively cheap.

Zetes’ Visidot traceability system uses sophisticated scanners to read hundreds of labels and codes, of different types, in one “read”. This is being used by logistics firm Ifco systems to monitor its entire stock of reusable plastic containers, which deliver groceries to retail chains all across the USA.

The business case for switching to voice systems is well documented, with accuracy rates commonly reported at 99 per cent, and huge boosts to efficiency and throughput compared to entrenched paper based systems. But there are also more obscure benefits, such as the improved safety of truck mounted voice systems, which leave drivers’ hand and eyes free.

For every application, the efficiencies must be carefully balanced against the total cost of ownership.

Terran Churcher, chairman of Codegate, warns against only considering upfront costs: “Purchasing ruggedised devices like the Motorola MC65 or the Intermec CN3 may be initially more expensive but these are more likely to survive in the field and involve less device swap-outs and user down-time.”

It can be useful to consider the relative costs of the manner of data capture. Anton du Preez of VoiteQ points out that, by nature, voice equipment sustains less damage. “Pure voice solutions, or even multifunction devices that are body-worn, are not being picked up or put down and so are generally less manhandled and see less malicious damage.”

The time taken to install and run a data capture system should also be considered. Richard Adams of Vocollect, says: “One of the most crucial functions of a logistics system is the ability to capture data without impacting on the velocity of product movement across the supply chain.”

Ongoing costs can also be overlooked. David Upton, managing director of DA Systems, says: “Customers should also press their suppliers regarding change requests. After using a system for a while, most customers will require change requests of some description – for example to cater for a new service they offer. Suppliers should be quizzed on average lead times and charges for change requests.”

But balancing the costs against benefits, it can be difficult to account for the full potential of the insights provided by all this data.

“One of our customers has been able to improve its transport operation by as much as 25 per cent by better understanding the supply chain, improving performance and matching resources to actual requirements,” says Paul Ridden of Skillweb.

Zetes’ Andrew Southgate elaborates: “Having full visibility within the supply chain eliminates a lot of costs associated with over-ordering, misplaced stock and shrinkage – all classic problem areas, which even the most sophisticated retailers find a challenge.”

Ian Snadden of Intermec goes further: “The improved tracking and traceability that the data capture systems offer is seen by most as the only widely available options open to supply chain operators to help improve efficiency and reduce wastage”

Du Preez highlights the scope of visibility to be gained, which can encompass everything within the four walls of the warehouse, to the macro visibility of the entire international supply chain.

Case study: Rise of the dashboard

In answer to the question of what to do with data, dashboards are a popular way of illustrating gathered information. These are used to track work rates, flag up areas of under or over work, and even to reconfigure shift patterns site layout.

Data collaboration can be invaluable, says Ridden. “By having a standard ID protocol that is open and shared between organisations it is possible to reduce complex integration challenges and provide improved visibility across the supply chain.”

To this end, the Global Upstream Supply Initiative, developed by GS1 UK and the Global Commerce Initiative, focuses on communication flows and supporting XML message standards for manufacturers and suppliers and has already been adopted by brands like Nestle, P&G, Crown and Tetrapak.

David Weatherby of GS1 UK explains: “It covers a broad range of interactions from plan to cash including orders, invoices, and physical goods handling and delivers lower costs through reduced rush orders, improved vehicle fill, reduced waste while providing faster time to market and improved product availability.”

But visibility can also be usefully shared with the customer. Upton says: “Keeping the customer informed through alerts is now no longer a one way experience – the customer should be able to respond and interact, for example to re-arrange a delivery or postpone for another day.”

New technologies are capitalising on the role of visibility, such as the use of smart phones to interact with the WMS. Kofax is launching a mobile capture service, which integrates smart phones and tablet computers to business processes.

Most agree they aren’t rugged enough for wide use in the warehouse but Weatherby points out that: “Smart phones and apps have an increasingly important role to play, as they can be used to provide management alerts to exception conditions.”

While finding the data capture system with the optimum fit for each product or business style can unleash huge labour, cost and productivity savings, the intelligent use of the resulting data can revolutionise entire supply chains.

But capturing data is only part of the story, and once captured, the next investment has to be in unlocking its power.

Case study: Integrating data for collaboration advantage

Novozymes, a Danish producer of enzymes and biopharma products, has adopted GS1 UK’s GUSI standards to boost efficiency across its supply chain, and to support adoption of vendor managed inventory.

The firm has production facilities in 130 countries and is active in 25 industry sectors. This was straining inter-company operational efficiency, with the possibility of having to integrate with every vendor’s IT system separately, at huge cost.

Using GUSI cut the implementation time for its VMI system by more than half.

As stock availability information is shared and made more readily available, inventory levels, and risk in the supply chain is reduced. The improved information flow also allows better planning of deliveries and picking processes.

Juan Francisco Zurita Duque, team lead for system integration, Novozymes IT, said it “has allowed for better support for our supply chain organisation and a faster, more flexible, roll-out of our solutions”.

Case study: Visibility via voice

Scottish fashion retailer Internacionale took on VoiteQ’s voice system across picking and replenishment operations to improve accuracy, productivity and stock availability across its Au Naturale homeware brand, and its ladies fashion chain Internacionale.

Its warehouse operatives pick up to 1.5million units a week to support its 150 stores across the UK with little operational transparency. Managing staffing levels was problematic, with no visibility of how big the day’s pick was.

The average weekly pick on the paper system involved up to 500,000 units, and 140-200 people over two shifts. It also took five data processing staff to manually print and sort the picking lists and to consolidate and input data from some 50,000 pieces of paper to update the company’s stock levels.

VoiteQ installed its own middleware to allow picking information transfer between the existing ProLogic CIMS WMS and the VoiceMan system. Talkman terminals worn on the belt provide a real time link to the WMS, via a VoiteQ interface, which automatically converts data to and from voice.

This is used for picking and replenishment, along with cross-docking for 70 per cent of its stock. It also has a “pallet build” function.

Stock levels are now updated in real time. By 6 am, the warehouse managers now have complete visibility of the size of the pick, down to pack level.

“Since implementing Talkman, accuracy has increased to 99 per cent and efficiency is up by 29 per cent. Internacionale achieved a return on investment well within a year,” says Isabel McCabe, IT controller at Internacionale.

The improved visibility boosted stock availability from 60 per cent to 90 per cent, and allowed a reorganisation of all operations to take place in one shift as opposed to two.

“Warehouse operations now start at 6am and are completely finished by 5pm, with the three jobs (pick, replenish and put away) now run concurrently,” said McCabe.



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