Magazine Article | September 24, 2008

Rugged Tablets Streamline Distribution Center Processes

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Since this manufacturer installed forklift-mounted rugged tablets that wirelessly connect to its WMS (warehouse management system), it is able to ship 50% more product with 40% less labor.

Integrated Solutions, October 2008

Sturm Foods manufactures dry goods such as oatmeal and drink mixes. Sturm's products are distributed to stores such as Wal-Mart, Target, and H.E.B. In March of 2007, Wal-Mart informed Sturm that rather than continuing to order pallets of products as it had been, it would begin ordering smaller quantities more frequently. To accommodate this request, Sturm needed to transition from picking orders by pallets in its DC (distribution center) to picking and shipping by cases.

Prior to Wal-Mart's demand, Sturm used a manual process in its DC. As an order was sent to the DC, the supervisor would assign two employees to handpick the order using a paper pick ticket. Using a forklift, the employees would pick the pallets listed on the order and cross the products off as they were picked. "On a pallet basis, our manual process was efficient," says Glen Bunnell, IT manager at Sturm Foods. "However, we quickly determined that on a case-by-case basis, the manual process wasn't going to cut it." Sturm experienced inventory discrepancies in the short time it used the manual process for case picking, due to misplaced inventory, the lack of validation measures, and the overall room for error innate in using paper orders.

DC Conditions Demand Rugged Tablet PCs
To eliminate the inventory discrepancies and with the desire to increase the overall efficiency of the DC, Sturm began implementation of a Manhattan-brand WMS (warehouse management system). As a part of the new solution, Sturm wanted to find forklift-mounted tablet PCs that would wirelessly connect with the WMS to streamline the case-by-case picking process. Due to the conditions of the DC, Sturm needed to find a rugged unit. The DC can get very hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and the computer units would be bumped, dropped, or shaken.

With the help of integrator AbeTech, Sturm began researching forklift-mounted computers. After comparing three units, Sturm chose the iX 104C2 tablet PC unit from Xplore Technologies. The iX 104C2 is mounted to the forklifts using a docking station (also provided by Xplore) that enables the units to be locked in with a key and connected to the forklift batteries to charge. The tablet PC is IP67-compliant, meaning it is dust-proof and can withstand being submerged in up to 30cm of water. The iX 104C2 also has a 10.4-inch sealed LCD touch screen. Furthermore, the unit has integrated wireless connectivity, allowing it to be securely connected to the WMS.

Sturm purchased 36 Xplore iX 104C2 units and docking stations, and AbeTech configured and installed the first unit. Sturm IT installed the remainder of the tablets themselves using Symantec Ghost to image and duplicate each of the units so that each would be set up identically. To train employees on the units, Sturm encouraged workers to play with them. "I encouraged the employees to play solitaire on the Xplore units. The units have a Windows operating system that the employees are already familiar with," says Bunnell. Currently, a new employee is fully trained on the iX 104C2 in about an hour.

Touch screen PCs, Bar Code Scanners Increase Accuracy
Now, an employee logs onto the WMS from the iX 104C2 docked on the forklift they will be using that day. The computer shows the employee a task list including orders to pick that day, and the employee uses the touch screen to work through the list. Pallets and cases are now bar coded, and the employees use the scanners attached to the Xplore unit to verify each step of the order picking process. For instance, the employee has to scan the pallet they are moving and then scan the location to which they are moving it, ensuring they've complied with the task list. On the case level, the employee scans the pallet address from which they are taking the cases, scans the GTIN (global tracking identification number) of the product they're picking, and enters the number of cases being picked. "The elimination of paper orders, combined with the WMS and bar-coding validation measures, drastically decreases the margin for human error that we were experiencing with our prior manual process," says Bunnell.

In the first week the solution went live in May 2007, Sturm had the largest shipping week it has had in the company's 106-year history. Sturm received payback on the solution within six months of installation. Today, Sturm ships 50% more product than it did before implementing the solution, yet has reduced labor by 40%. In the near future, the company is planning to purchase approximately 35 additional Xplore iX 104C2 units to support its manufacturing process.