May 16, 2011
technology review | Tracking & Tracing

The ins and outs of visibility

The ins and outs of visibility

One company wanted to track the precise location of every item in its DC. Another wanted a way to monitor assets scattered throughout the continent. The answer for both: a sophisticated visibility system.

By David Maloney

Whoever said information is everything could have been talking about the business of logistics and distribution management. Just ask any company that has invested in tracking and tracing technology. These systems, which typically combine data capture technology with sophisticated software, take the guesswork out of determining the whereabouts of items—whether they're inside a DC or somewhere in a far-flung global distribution network. Almost without exception, companies that use this technology say it has allowed them to take service and performance to the next level.

What follows is a look at two companies that have implemented visibility systems and the advantages they've gained. The first, Cooper-Booth Wholesale Co., is using an integrated system to track items within the four walls of its DC. The second, Perfect Pallets, is using track and trace technology to keep tabs on assets scattered throughout the United States and Canada.

A wholesale boost to visibility
For Cooper-Booth, a regional supplier to convenience stores, tobacco outlets, drug stores, and grocers, the move to a sophisticated track/trace system began with its 2009 decision to replace its RF scanning system with voice technology. The wholesaler's original objective in shifting to voice was to kick up picking productivity and accuracy at its 100,000-square-foot DC in Mountville, Pa. Over time, however, the company expanded the system to applications like receiving and putaway, and eventually, inventory tracking. As a result, it now has an end-to-end visibility system that provides info on orders and inventory status, as well as data needed for tasks ranging from labor monitoring to regulatory compliance.

The system, which incorporates scanning technology, a TopVOX voice recognition system, and the company's warehouse management system (WMS), keeps close tabs on inventory from the moment it arrives at the facility. As workers deposit incoming merchandise into picking slots, they scan the locations with Motorola handhelds to marry the slot with the product. When customer orders come in, the WMS allocates products to specific orders and relays picking instructions to workers via the voice system. As workers complete the picks, they read check digits back to the WMS system to verify that items were picked from the correct slots and to confirm the pick.

Data collected during the picking process is automatically transmitted to the WMS, ensuring that its information is updated in real time. Along with the order and inventory status updates, data collected during picking provides visibility into worker performance, which helps the company to better manage its labor.

"We know our productivity, and we know where our errors are coming from," explains Trevor Martin, vice president of operations. He reports that compared with the old RF system, the voice system has not only improved accuracy but also boosted productivity anywhere from 10 to 20 percent, depending on the pick area.

The company has seen other benefits as well. For example, the system provides data needed to track product lots—a capability required by many states in the event of a food or drug recall. It also collects information needed to meet tax record-keeping requirements for tobacco products.

"For tracking purposes, we match the TopVOX data that comes back from picking to the lot that was scanned as it was placed into the pick slot," says Martin.

On top of that, the system enables Cooper-Booth to provide customers with visibility into their orders. Clients no longer have to call or e-mail the company to find out whether an order has been completed or what items an individual order contains. These days, obtaining that information is as simple as logging onto a website.

Perfect tracking
Cooper-Booth's use of a tracking system to monitor goods within a DC is just one example of how visibility systems are deployed. Other companies use the technology to track the movement of goods out in the wider world. Perfect Pallets is one example.

Based in Indianapolis, Perfect Pallets serves as a pallet pooler to the printing industry, supplying reusable plastic pallets to bulk printers for delivering advertising inserts to some 1,200 newspapers in the United States and Canada. At the same time, it operates a fleet of 30 trucks under the Perfect Transportation banner.

The trucking division, which has terminals in Indianapolis; Dickson, Tenn.; and Chandler, Ariz., operates as a for-hire carrier across the United States. But its primary job is to transport the pallets in the company's pool between bulk printing houses and their customers, pick up empty pallets, and handle backhaul loads.

The need to keep tabs on pallets scattered throughout the continent led the company to install a visibility system. "We are not just a standard trucking firm, but have our own assets that we want to keep track of as well," explains Amy Lathrop, director of operations. "We want to have technology to have visibility at all times into our operations."

At the heart of the tracking system is the TMWSuite of enterprise transportation software, which Perfect Pallets adopted several years ago to run its trucking business. The software, which was supplied by TMW Systems, is used in tandem with PeopleNet Fleet Manager to provide in-cab communications and vehicle tracking so Perfect Transportation can continuously monitor the location and status of trucks and their loads.

The system is designed for ease of communication. Using touch screens in their cabs, drivers can obtain the dispatch and delivery data they need—whether it's a new assignment, customer information, load data, sequenced directions, the number of units to deliver, or required documentation. The system, in turn, automatically transmits truck status updates to dispatch every 10 minutes or when an event triggers an update. Status updates include the driver's start time and location, time of arrival at the pickup location, actual quantity of goods loaded, time of departure from the pickup site, and time of arrival at the delivery site.

Clients can track the status of their loads via TMW Systems' online portal, eStat. In addition to providing details on shipments in transit, the system allows them to call up information on previous deliveries and view signed proof-of-delivery documents that have been scanned or electronically captured.

"This replaces the old system, where customers had to call for that information. Now, they can just pull it up on the Web," says Walthrop. "From a customer perspective, it shows we provide them with cutting-edge technology, while it adds value to our daily processes. The biggest compliments we hear are from our customers who depend on this system every day."

About the Author

David Maloney
Chief Editor
David Maloney has been a journalist for more than 30 years and has been with DC VELOCITY since April of 2004. Prior to joining DCV, David was senior editor for Modern Materials Handling, where he reported extensively on distribution and supply chain operations. David also has extensive experience as a broadcast journalist. Before writing for supply chain publications, he was a journalist, television producer and director in Pittsburgh. David combines a background of reporting on logistics with his video production experience to bring new opportunities to DC VELOCITY readers, including Web-based videos highlighting top distribution and logistics facilities, Webcasts and other cross-media projects. He also is the host and producer/director of Move It!, DC VELOCITY's online program that explains "how the stuff we use everyday gets to us." David continues to live and work in the Pittsburgh area.

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