Magazine Article | December 1, 2001

Reaping The Benefits Of An Inventory Tracking System

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

A $40 million wholesale plant nursery eliminates manual stock counting with a new network, handheld computers, and integrated inventory tracking software.

Integrated Solutions, December 2001

When David Rhoades was hired as MIS manager of Norman's Nursery, Inc. (San Gabriel, CA) in June of 2000, he was told he had one priority: Develop an accurate, electronic inventory system. Sounds simple enough, right? But, Norman's is a $40 million wholesale plant nursery with approximately 600 employees. The company grows more than 11 million different types of trees, shrubs, and plants at 26 sites across California.

"We actually had no inventory tracking system - manual or otherwise," Rhoades said. "We did have a 10-year-old Idol 4 legacy system that stored estimated inventory data, but that wasn't very accurate." For example, before Rhoades was hired, Norman's published an availability list every three months for its customers. Each foreman at the 26 sites would write down a list of the site's products and fax or mail that list to the corporate headquarters. However, each foreman's estimated count was only accurate at that moment. Of course, this factor made the availability list usually out of date by the time it was published.

"I was told the only way of achieving an accurate inventory was to hire temporary labor to hand count the inventory and input that data into the Idol 4 legacy system," he explained. The company knew this method would take an inordinate amount of time and create a lot of errors. So, Rhoades was asked to find a better solution.

Your Way Is Good, But Here's How It Could Be Better
Rhoades began his search for an inventory system at the 2000 Comdex trade show where he first met representatives from Intermec (Everett, WA) about their handheld data collection devices. Intermec then introduced him to Circa Information Technologies (Downey, CA) for his inventory software needs.

Circa has been providing software solutions, such as inventory control and warehouse management, for more than 17 years. "I had certain specifications I wanted for this project, but I don't pretend to know everything there is to know about the software business," Rhoades said. "I liked that Circa provided me with a list of its past customers (e.g. Kawasaki) and also suggestions for why I should revise some of my specifications." After Comdex, Circa successfully bid on the project and created a flow analysis describing the exact system it would build for Norman's.

Creating A More Accurate Estimate For 11 Million Plants
For this project, Rhoades' first step was to rebuild his network with two new servers and SQL Server (Norman's had only one IBM RS/6000 server for all of its business software, and that server crashed shortly after Rhoades arrived). He also purchased 12 Intermec mode 2410 handhelds. Circa then loaded its Inventory Locator software onto the servers and the handhelds. "Once all of that was done, it was a team effort to connect all of the hardware to our network," said Rhoades. "Circa kept me involved in almost daily discussions of the progress and the scope of the software project," Rhoades said.

Today, Norman's employees use the handhelds to go into a field and do a "block count" or, an estimate of the number of plants in a row and column. "We are dealing with approximately 11 million plants on the ground," Rhoades said. "There is no way we can count every single one." This info is entered into the handheld via the Circa software interface. The data is then downloaded (via a wired connection) to the SQL database, which formats the inventory information so it can be imported into the Idol 4 system.

The project took approximately six weeks to complete and go live. According to Rhoades, Norman's inventory is now known within reasonable accuracy. He said the next step is to transfer all inventory data from SQL server to a Web server. This will provide a daily online inventory for Norman's sales reps and customers to review. Although a future priority, for Rhoades and Norman's, this online project is one that's growing.

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