For a third-party service provider, it's not enough to know the precise whereabouts of every last item stashed in your DCs. Customers want nothing less than assurances that you know their products' whereabouts at all times. "As a 3PL, we are responsible for inventory both inside and outside of the four walls," says Mike Schoenfeld, vice president of customer development for third-party service company Exel.
That assurance hasn't always been easy to provide. Items within a warehouse or DC could be tracked via warehouse management systems (WMS). And items in transit could be monitored via the carrier's tracking system or a 3PL's own transportation management system (TMS). But in the past at least, electronic tracking capabilities often ended there. The average company had virtually no way of keeping tabs on items from the time a truck pulled into the yard until workers finally got around to unloading it. Managers could track a carton on a truck hurtling down a highway or on a plane winging its way across the country. But if that same carton happened to be sitting in one of the dozens of trailers in the facility's yard, they were out of luck.
Those days are over. Thanks to the introduction of yard management systems, managers now can control assets even when they're outside the facility's walls. Yard management systems record the arrival, placement, current location and eventual departure of all assets, including trucks, trailers, containers and jockeys (the special-purpose tractors used to move tractors, trailers and other equipment). And more to the point, perhaps, they also track those trailers' or containers' contents.
To help keep track of inventories for multiple clients, Exel now uses RedPrairie's Yard software at about 20 of its facilities. The software controls and schedules the movement of all trailers and jockeys within the property. It seamlessly integrates with Exel's warehouse management system (also from RedPrairie), though the software is also designed to operate on a stand-alone basis. The Yard software provides a clear picture of which items are on hand in the yard and where they are located at any given time.
Such visibility has advantages beyond the simple tracking of products when they're outside the building. It also helps Exel manage the flow of these goods as they move inside. "It allows us to schedule when we bring products into the building, while leaving other products on their trailers out in the yard until needed," says Schoenfeld. "We can intelligently bring our receipts to the proper doors for optimum processing."
Working with the WMS, Exel's yard management software arranges for items to be received at the door closest to their put-away locations. If certain items are needed to fill current orders, they can be sequenced to coincide with the picking schedule.
Once a truck has been assigned to an inbound door, the software automatically registers the trailer as a receipt and workers are summoned to the assigned dock to unload it. Similarly, items that will cross-dock can be sequenced for processing just as they are needed for loading onto outbound trucks. In such cases, the yard management system seamlessly hands off the inventory tracking responsibilities to the WMS during the period when product passes through the building. Control is later returned to the yard system once trailers are loaded.
Warehouse on wheels
At times when storage space is tight, yard trailers can even be used to store overflow inventory, again managed by the yard software. "We can use the trailers as small warehouses that just happen to be mobile," says Schoenfeld. The yard management system can control where the assets are at all times, arranging for them to be brought to the dock only when needed.
And in an insecure world, yard management software can play a role in guarding the property. Working with advance ship notices and other forms of electronic data interchange, the software has the capability to schedule truck arrivals. This scheduling information is then passed on to gate workers so they know which of the arriving trucks have been approved and which to turn away.
Yard management software also works with the WMS to ensure loading accuracy. Workers scan all products as they're loaded onto the trailer so that the WMS can verify that the freight is put on the right trucks. "We check to make sure that everything on the load matches [the list of] what should be there. It is our last check before it leaves the property," says Schoenfeld.
If an error is noted or a change is made to an order after the truck has been loaded, the yard system can send a "hold" alert to the gate, with instructions for the driver to return to the dock. There's no longer any worry that items will drop out of electronic sight, even temporarily. Yard management completes the circuit.