October 12, 2017

A remedy for window pain

A remedy for window pain

As business grew, inventory tracking was becoming a serious headache for The Window Outfitters. An Internet-enabled tracking/picking solution from Voodoo Robotics cleared things right up.

By Ben Ames

Dallas-based manufacturer The Window Outfitters (TWO) does a bustling business selling high-end window shutters for both residential and commercial buildings. In the decade since its founding, the company has expanded its product offerings from its original line of timber shutters into a full array of wood and aluminum window furnishings, which it sells to retailers, distributors, and contractors worldwide.

While that type of fast-paced growth is great for the bottom line, it can create problems elsewhere in the organization. That was the case at TWO's Dallas manufacturing/distribution site. As volume grew, the company found it increasingly difficult to keep tabs on materials and goods flowing through the facility, which made it tough to figure out how much to order from its suppliers

In essence, what the company needed was an end-to-end tracking system—one that would allow it to determine the exact status of inventory in its warehouse (what raw materials it had on hand) and on the manufacturing floor (how much was currently being used for work in progress) as well as monitor the status of orders (which ones were complete, which ones were still pending, and which ones had shipped). Above all, the company wanted a solution that would automatically gather and update that information, allowing it to instantly calculate, based on preproduction and postproduction orders in the pipeline, what and how much material to order.

In its search for the right software, TWO initially considered high-end material requirements planning (MRP) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) offerings as well as warehouse management systems (WMS). But in the end, it chose none of the above. Instead, the company went with the SKU-Keeper suite of products from Voodoo Robotics, a Plano, Texas-based warehouse automation specialist.

Designed as an IIOT (Industrial Internet of Things) solution for the warehouse, the SKU-Keeper system combines hardware and software to track inventory as it moves through a warehouse and/or manufacturing operation. Using wireless sensors integrated with a cloud-based inventory management system, the solution not only functions as an inventory tracking tool but also offers full pick-to-light capabilities.

"The system is both and neither an inventory management and a pick-to-light system," says Trevor Blumenau, founder and CEO of Voodoo Robotics. "It's a cloud display device that can supercharge an existing picking and packing operation."

SKU-Keeper tags, which are four- by two-inch battery-powered devices that resemble an old-fashioned pager. The tags, which are attached to inventory storage locations (anything from racks and shelves to shipping and receiving bays), keep track of the SKUs (stock-keeping units) at that location. Among other advantages, the solution is both flexible and scalable, allowing users to move tags from location to location as needed as well as add tags as business grows.

TWO implemented the project in phases. It initially installed 150 SKU-Keeper tags on its key inventory items—long aluminum extrusions—at the Texas warehouse. The tags, which were attached to the racks with industrial double-sided tape, keep track of the quantity of each extrusion as well as the color and type. Anyone can push the button on the tag to see exactly what extrusion is stored in that slot, making cycle counts easy.

Once it became comfortable with the system, TWO expanded access to the order pickers, enabling them to use their desktops, tablets, or smartphones to locate items for orders. For help finding a product or material, they simply click on the item on their device to activate its SKU-Keeper tag. The device lights up with the picker's name, the SKU, and the quantity to pick.

As for the cost, Voodoo offers the SKU-Keeper suite via a hardware-as-a-service (HaaS) model, leasing the tags at a nominal cost of about $5 per month. Customers can rent extra devices during peak periods and return them when activity subsides, paying only for what they need.

TWO executives say the new solution has accomplished exactly what they hoped it would do. "SKU-Keeper saves us tons of time every month when it's time to do cycle counts. For the most difficult items, all we have to do is push the button on the tag to verify the count," TWO Procurement Coordinator Kramer Bailey said in a statement. "Figuring out what to order from our suppliers is way easier now."

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

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