Magazine Article | May 1, 2002

Nonperishable Service

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Are product shortages hurting your business? Empower your employees to keep accurate inventory with a WMS (warehouse management system).

Integrated Solutions, May 2002

Anyone in the manufacturing or distribution businesses knows the last thing you want is products sitting on a shelf collecting dust. For Metro Foods, Inc. (Olive Branch, MS), a distributor of perishable goods such as meat products, frozen foods, and bagels, the concern of products collecting dust is further compounded by the threat of products spoiling.

Inaccurate Inventory Records Compromise Customer Relationships
Metro Foods used manual processes for receiving products into its DC (distribution center), taking inventory, and storing products in the warehouse. Besides taking almost 2 hours to unload a shipment, Metro found that its inventory records were inaccurate. "Our inventory counts were about 96% accurate," says Mitch Mattingly, VP of Metro Foods. "Considering that we have more than 335,000 cases of products on hand at any given time, that 4% difference can mean a costly overstocking of products - or, worse yet, - a product shortage situation." Either scenario threatened Metro Foods' reputation with its customers as well as its profit margins. In an effort to alleviate the problem, the company sought out a way to automate its warehouse processes.

Wrong WMS Produces Near Disastrous Results
Metro Foods settled on a WMS that didn't suit its business. "The system required us to switch from an AS/400 environment, which we were very comfortable with, to a UNIX environment," recalls Mattingly. "Shortly after the implementation, we realized the system was not going to be a good fit for us. It couldn't handle the high volumes we deal with and it could not update our database in real time." Metro Foods went back to the drawing board and began looking for a new system that would better fit its business model. Before settling on a new WMS vendor, Metro Foods insisted that the WMS run on an AS/400 server and show demonstrable proof of successful implementations at other similar companies. The food distributor chose Preferred Computer Solutions, Inc.'s (Memphis, TN) Preferred Warehouse & Logistics System.

From Frustration To Automation
"The new WMS was a totally different experience from our first WMS," says Mattingly. "The system has a built-in ability to move the oldest products out the door first, even if it means moving 50 cases of product from one pallet and combining it with another partial pallet."

Metro Foods integrates 15 Norand R170 handheld bar code scanners with the WMS to add further automation to its solution. The devices are docked on the forklifts, where their batteries stay charged by drawing off the forklifts' batteries. The devices are used to wirelessly access the customer database and to update the database in real time via an 802.11 wireless LAN system. Because of the built-in flexibility of the WMS, DC workers can account for unexpected changes in the put-away process. For example, a forklift operator may deliver a pallet of meat to aisle 15, row 6 only to find that the pallet won't fit on the shelf because the meat supplier changed the dimensions of the pallet without telling anyone. With the new WMS, the driver can push a function key on the device and alert the system that the pallet needs to be moved to a new location and the supplier needs to be contacted to find out more information about the new box dimension change. "If a system doesn't have this kind of built-in functionality, things can go awry in a hurry - especially in the food business," says Mattingly. "Before you know it, nothing is where it's supposed to be, and you're questioning why you invested in an automated system in the first place." But, Metro Foods' WMS is not that kind of system. In fact, the last time the food distributor took inventory and compared its results to the database, it was amazed at the accuracy. "Our inventory count showed that we were just 28 cases over the database number of 335,000 cases," says Mattingly. "Because of our WMS we were able to improve our inventory accuracy from 96% previously to 99.99%."

The nature of the food industry does not lend itself to efficiency. Customers often place orders with very short turnaround requirements or they may insist that products be packaged or shipped a certain way. But, using the right WMS and taking advantage of its automation features can help just about any enterprise manage these inefficiencies more efficiently.