Wireless warehouse

Seven Seas Shipchandlers has deployed a wireless network and handhelds in its warehouse to ease communication between pickers, storekeepers and sales.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  March 27, 2005

|~||~||~|Clear communications between pickers and storekeepers, and between the sales office and the warehouse, is vital for ensuring that customers get exactly what they want, when they want it. However, the sheer size of a facility can create a massive hurdle to achieving this, as people cannot talk face-to-face and pickers in distant corners of the warehouse are all but unreachable. To overcome these challenges, Seven Seas Shipchandlers has implemented a Symbol wireless network and handheld devices, which will simplify communications within the warehouse and thereby improve picking accuracy. The company first began to look at implementing a handheld-based solution a couple of years ago, and it ran a pilot project last year. However, the technology really came into its own, once Seven Seas moved into a new warehouse in the Dubai Investments Park at the end of last year. Built in a plot of around 93,000 m2, the 37,000 m2 purpose-built facility includes offices, freezer storage for 6000 pallets, dry goods warehousing for 14,000-plus pallets and a technical stores area that holds 6000 lines. The size of the facility and the large number of items stored there — most of which are perishable food items — necessitated the implementation of a picking system that was more advanced than paper and a clipboard. “The primary purpose [of the handhelds], as far as the inventory operations are concerned, is to ensure the accuracy of inventory, getting the right expiry dates and the right bin locations,” explains KN Kannan, manager, IT & communications, Seven Seas Group. This greater accuracy is particularly important for Seven Seas, as the company needs to pick at the piece, case and pallet level, which greatly increases the complexity of its operations. “If it is at the case level or the pallet level, it is a lot easier. The real challenge is that within the bins, we may have a mix of expiry dates, and we have to make sure that the picker picks the right one,” says Kannan. To achieve this, the company has armed its pickers with handheld devices and labelled all of its warehouse locations with barcodes. All incoming stock is also barcoded, which then makes checking the products quick and easy to do. “After the picking list is generated and sent to the handheld, the picker goes around the warehouse… He shoots the bin location, he shoots the case label, which has a barcode on it, and then the system knows that he has picked the right expiry date and from the right location,” explains Kannan. “This then ensures that we rotate the stock, and there is no question of making any errors, as the system tells the pickers exactly where to go.” The picking list is also shown on the handheld in a logical order that takes into account the location of the items needed and their different expiry dates. This then increases productivity, as it takes less time to gather an order. “The system means that the person just needs to walk once across the aisles, and then he has finished his entire operation,” says Kannan. Using the handhelds to scan items also means that inventory keeping is much more accurate and up to date, as the movement of goods into and out of the warehouse is tracked in realtime. There is also no duplication, as the pickers themselves can update the system automatically, rather than having someone else type the picks into the system after the job has been completed. “With the old system, [the storekeeper] would feed what he saw on a piece of paper into his computer,” explains Kannan. “This was double work, because one person was doing the picking and another was then feeding it into the system. My idea is to save storekeepers work... as the information now gets updated as soon as [the item] is psychically removed,” he adds. “The salesperson also now knows exactly what is happening in realtime.” ||**|||~||~||~|The picking lists and other information is sent to and from the handhelds using a wireless network, which relies on 23 Symbol access points spread across the building. Two points cover the office sections, and they can be used by visitors for internet access or for connecting a laptop to a projector, for instance. The rest are situated in the warehousing areas, with seven in the dry goods section, two in the technical area and the rest in the eight different freezer units. There needs to be more in these areas, because the shielding in the units blocks the wireless signals. The infrastructure was put in place by Mobileware and Symbol, both of which also worked on the original pilot project in the previous warehouse in Alquoz. “Mobileware along with Symbol did a splendid job in terms of putting things in place,” comments Kannan. Seven Seas opted to work with Symbol primarily because it had a handheld, the MC9000G, that was able to scan a barcode from 7 m away. This was a key feature, as the company’s racking system is up to six levels high, which means that pickers need to scan very elevated barcodes when taking pallets from the uppermost levels. “The first challenge was to identify a handheld that could take that range… [and] at that point in time, [the MC9000G] was one of the few offering 7 m scanning,” says Kannan. “This unit also supports Bluetooth and there are going to be Bluetooth printers [in the warehouse] for doing pallet labels, and the like,” he adds. The handhelds also needed to be ruggerdised to ensure that the workers need not worry about breaking them, and they had to be able to withstand the temperatures in the freezers. “I was anticipating -25oC to -28oC in the freezer stores... so about five of the 33 units I have bought are monochrome units, which can take colder temperatures, down to -30oC,” notes Kannan. In terms of software, Seven Seas decided to develop its own application for generating pick lists. The company looked at implementing an off-the-shelf solution, but it was unable to find one that matched its needs. “We could not find any software that would operate exactly the way we wanted — there was always a compromise — and that hampered our vision for how to do things,” says Kannan. “Furthermore, something bought off the shelf would have to work with my [Oracle-based] ERP. And if that came from a different vendor, then you are looking at three different people needing my input, which would make the entire scenario very complex.” Now that the basic picking process has been migrated onto the handhelds, Seven Seas is aiming to leverage on the same equipment to enhance communications between the pickers and the storekeepers, and between the warehouses and the office. The first step in this process will be to use the handhelds and wireless headsets to allow the pickers to talk to their supervisors. This should improve picking accuracy yet further, as pickers will be able to get clarifications without needing to walk to the storekeeper’s desk and back — a journey which can be as long as a couple of hundred metres each way. “They cannot walk up and down half a kilometre just to get clarification on one item… So, the sheer size [of the warehouse] demands continuous communications between different people,” says Kannan. The company needs to rely on its wireless network for this, as using mobile phones is too expensive and also impractical, as there is no signal in parts of the warehouse, particularly inside the freezers. “Mobile phones are alright for a normal clarification between the salesperson and the inventory person, but the pickers who are actually removing the items have to be constantly in touch with the storekeepers,” notes Kannan. Sevens Seas is now implementing this handheld-to-handheld communications set-up, but the company wants to go one step further and integrate its wireless system with the normal phone network using voice over internet protocol (VOIP) technology. This would then enable someone in an office to pick up the receiver on a landline telephone and talk to a picker or storekeeper just by dialling the extension number assigned to their handheld. Such a system would greatly simplify communications across the operation, but so far, the UAE’s monopoly telecommunications provider has refused to allow the company to put the technology in place. “At the moment, I am facing a bottleneck in terms of getting a clearance from Etisalat for the VOIP,” comments Kannan. ||**||

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