July 26, 2010
Column | outbound

Is that an iPad in your warehouse?

Consumer technologies are showing up in warehouses and DCs, where they're driving double-digit performance gains.

By Mitch Mac Donald

No one would be surprised to hear that Brent Beabout, Office Depot's vice president of global network strategy and transportation, considers technology to be the driving force behind ongoing advances in supply chain management. What might come as a surprise, however, is the type of technology he's talking about.

In a recent interview with DC Velocity, Beabout noted that some of the most successful implementations he's seen have centered not on the standard logistics technologies, but on widely available "garden variety" devices. As a case in point, he cited a project in which his company "used straight off-the-shelf GPSs from Best Buy to enhance the functionality of [its] warehouse management systems."

That comment was still front of mind when we came across the story of Tim Markley, the president of Markley Enterprises in Elkhart, Ind.

Markley Enterprises is a manufacturer of sales and marketing support materials like in-store and trade show displays. Approximately 10 years ago, the company expanded its business to include warehousing and inventory management services. At first, it used a proprietary distribution system to manage these activities. But over time, it became clear that the system was no longer keeping up with the company's needs.

That led Markley to replace it with RedPrairie's On-Demand WMS. Since implementing the warehouse management system, the company has seen significant performance gains in all of the critical areas of its operation. Its inventory accuracy rate, for instance, now stands at over 99 percent. The company has also seen the time needed to pick and pack an order drop by almost a third.

But it wasn't the WMS alone that helped Markley Enterprises achieve these performance breakthroughs. Part of the credit goes to some decidedly garden variety technologies the company is using in conjunction with the WMS—specifically, Apple iPad devices.

Earlier this year, the company equipped employees in its pick and pack operation with iPads. When the WMS receives an order, it automatically transmits the order information—including item location and quantity—to the iPad of the worker nearest the item. In the past, workers had to travel to a work station to pick up paper lists with their picking instructions. Eliminating that step has cut travel time drastically. "We put pedometers on our people, and we actually saw steps decrease by 30 percent with the iPad," Markley reports.

The new system has brought other benefits as well, he adds. For one thing, it's greener. "We [send] orders via e-mail to each iPad, eliminating the need for paper," Markley explains. It's also faster. Because the company's online store is now integrated with the WMS, orders can be instantly transmitted to the warehouse floor for processing. This has saved the company approximately 1,000 hours per year in order entry time in comparison with the old system. On top of that, because the new system eliminates the need for manual data entry, it's more accurate. As a result of the improved speed and accuracy, Markley says, the company now receives far fewer customer service calls—again saving it significant amounts of time.

Markley is already looking for other ways to integrate the iPads into his company's operations. For example, he's currently exploring opportunities to use the devices for workforce management. "In addition to what we're already doing, we are looking at a cloud application using the iPad to capture and log employee production time," he says.

Granted, iPads, GPSs, and pedometers may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of technologies to enhance logistics operations. But as Markley's and Beabout's experiences show, sometimes there's a big payoff to thinking outside the box.

About the Author

Mitch Mac Donald
Group Editorial Director
Mitch Mac Donald has over 30 years of experience in both the newspaper and magazine businesses. He has covered logistics issues for 25 years. Named one of the Top 10 Business Journalists in the U.S. in both 1995 and 1996, he has served in a multitude of editorial and publishing roles. The leading force behind the launch of Supply Chain Management Review, he was that brand's founding publisher and editorial director from 1997 to 2000. Additionally, he has served as news editor, chief editor, publisher and editorial director of Logistics Management, as well as publisher of Modern Materials Handling. Mitch is also the president and CEO of Agile Business Media, LLC, the parent company of DC Velocity and CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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