Minimising picking time

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By early 2002, Knowles Transport was aware that its existing in-house warehouse management system (WMS) was under intense strain – escalating inventory levels were making it more difficult to track goods; failure rates were high and pickers were frustrated by stock not always being stored correctly.

Consequently, Knowles began to look for a replacement system. Recommendations from fellow Transport Association (TA) members led it to investigate and ultimately purchase the Empirica Warehouse Management System from Chess Logistics Technology.

Perhaps the most critical factor was that Empirica could track products effectively from the moment they arrived at the warehouse to the moment they left. After seeing a demonstration, Knowles was confident that Empirica would improve workforce productivity and minimise ‘picking time’ – this has now been quantified to provide productivity gains in excess of 20% – by ensuring the same product types were kept together within stacks and different product types stored separately.

Value-for-money was also important. The fact that Empirica is based on the InterSystems Caché database was a clear benefit for Knowles. Caché’s rapid processing speed enables Empirica to use less memory and support more users on the same hardware platform than the majority of databases. Consequently, Chess could offer Empirica to Knowles at a highly competitive cost-per-seat. Related to this is scalability – Caché’s multi-dimensional engine with its compact data structure enables it to use disk space efficiently, and so free-up room for growth. This gives Knowles confidence that the Empirica system will keep pace with its own development rates.

Effective interfacing

For Knowles, however, the approach adopted by the system vendor was just as important a factor. Knowles was looking for a business partnership, rather than a simple supplier-customer relationship. It was critical that the chosen company was responsive, flexible and prepared to customise the solution when required. Chess was able to provide this level of service, training key Knowles staff on all aspects of the system and trialling it comprehensively.

According to managing director Tony Knowles: “One of the best aspects of the Chess service was that it gave in-depth consideration to the needs of everybody likely to come into contact with the Empirica solution – from the key management team right through to data input operators.” Another vital element to the decision was that Knowles met the needs of those companies that rely on it to provide warehousing, transport and logistics.

One of Knowles’ largest logistics partners is Princes Foods, a leading supplier to the UK grocery and foodservice trade. For Princes Foods to be satisfied with Knowles’ selection, it needed to be confident that the chosen solution could interface effectively with its SAP Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system.

Warehouse control

Once Knowles had shown, with the help of Chess, how effectively the two systems could communicate through the Empirica interface and, in particular, the amount of unnecessary manual inputting that could be eliminated, Princes Foods was happy to endorse Knowles’ choice.

Spring 2002 was occupied with this process, together with a comprehensive trialling and training procedure designed to iron out any glitches and to ensure that key employees at Knowles were aware of the full range of its capabilities before the solution went live that July.

Since then, Empirica has dramatically improved the efficiency of Knowles’ warehouse operations. Back in May 2002 – two months before it switched to Empirica – the company’s failure rate stood at 2% of all deliveries. By April 2003, it was down to around 0.2%, and Knowles is confident that it can cut this even further over time.

Not all the benefits are quantifiable, however. Some manifest themselves in a greater sense of company well-being. Generally, Knowles feels much more in control of the whole warehousing process than it did previously. Most system users have found Empirica straightforward to learn and, consequently, little training has been required. As a result, the morale of the warehouse team has risen.

Knowles has also been able to use Empirica and, more specifically, Caché’s high-performance SQL access to create timely, detailed management reports. Using Caché’s support for open database connectivity (ODBC), users are able to augment Empirica’s reporting with a wide range of third-party query and reporting tools to generate information reports to further aid effective decision making.

“We believe we have got great value for money from implementing Empirica,” says Knowles. “Much of this is down to having immediate access to information which gives a much clearer picture of how the business is performing – from the latest stock figures to data about productivity levels. This information has enabled us to keep a lid on our budgets, allowing us to achieve a significant return on our investment of less than 12 months.”

He continues: “Other key benefits of Empirica include its reliability, due in part to the robustness of the Caché database and the fact that it is easy to manage. We had no use for a system which was overly complicated or sophisticated. Instead, in Empirica we have found a solution which is straightforward to operate and which is carefully tailored to our precise requirements.”

The Empirica solution is being further developed all the time. Knowles is now looking at the possibility of extending the range of available interfaces and also considering the potential benefits of employing it in other parts of the business, such as transport and delivery.

“With Empirica, we feel confident we have made the right choice of warehouse management system, and that the decision will make a significant contribution to our future success,” Knowles concludes.

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