Accelerating e-commerce activity is driving demand for better technology throughout the supply chain, and nowhere is that more evident than in the warehouse. As companies work to improve fulfillment accuracy and efficiency in the face of rising order volumes, warehouse technology modernization projects can mean the difference between keeping up with or falling short of service commitments. Just ask leaders at Lakeland, Florida-based Saddle Creek Logistics, a third-party logistics service provider (3PL) with a nationwide network of 46 facilities in 16 states that commits to delivering goods to most of the U.S. population in two days or less.
“Technology is a tremendous enabler and a critical part of how we support our customers’ businesses,” says Tony Hollis, Saddle Creek’s director of technology and innovation, emphasizing the company’s drive to wring inefficiencies out of its inbound and outbound operations.
A series of warehouse technology modernization projects has been Saddle Creek’s primary route to meeting that goal, beginning with a bar-code scanning project in the early 2000s and followed by a second mobile computing and scanning upgrade about four years ago. The next phase will include partial automation of some warehouse workflows with robotics, particularly in the picking and packing areas.
To date, the projects have helped Saddle Creek manage increased volumes for receiving, put-away, inventory, picking, and shipping—all without increasing its full-time headcount. New technology has also helped reduce training time for associates, while giving Saddle Creek’s retail customers the ability to offer consumers more buying choices.
Saddle Creek Logistics has embarked upon upgrades across its facility network, and it all started with bar-code scanning, which replaced the company’s paper-based product-tracking system in the early 2000s. The 3PL upgraded to bar-code scanning devices from Zebra Technologies and software services from mobile technology solutions firm Peak-Ryzex in a bid to boost efficiency and productivity in the warehouse while allowing retail customers to give consumers more product choices.
“Our ability to scan and ensure order accuracy really proliferated SKU [stock-keeping unit] counts in the warehouse and our customers’ offerings,” explains Bobby Hays, Saddle Creek’s vice president of distribution. “Today, in apparel for instance, they’re able to offer a different cut, a different style, a different color, and even a different shade of color in some cases.”
With the building blocks in place, Saddle Creek embarked on its second modernization initiative, adopting different sizes and types of mobile computing in the warehouse. Today, the 3PL uses more than 1,500 Zebra mobile computers, tablets, and scanners for everything from receiving to shipping. Examples include ultra-rugged combination keypad/touchscreen handheld mobile computers that enhance the efficiency of the receiving, put-away, inventory, and shipping processes. The devices can scan bar codes from as far away as 70 feet, reducing the time it takes to check inventory on a high shelf, for example. In picking, associates who fill orders via pick-to-light processes use proximity scanners for hands-free scanning, drastically boosting efficiency, according to the company. In combination with industrial printers, the technology allows associates to quickly scan item bar codes, verify orders, and print shipping labels.
The hardware’s familiar Android touchscreen user interface also helps with training, especially when it comes to getting seasonal associates up to speed.
“The Android user interfaces are intuitive and enable us to get temporary associates trained very quickly so we can process higher seasonal volumes,” Hays explains.
Looking ahead, automation and robotics is the next step for Saddle Creek Logistics, which will continue its partnership with Peak-Ryzex and Zebra to implement new efficiency-enhancing processes. One plan is to use robots that will travel between picking and packing areas, freeing associates to spend more time selecting items for orders and less time walking. Robots will work side by side with Saddle Creek associates, who will continue to use Zebra scanning devices, the companies said.