Jason Wheeler, warehouse operations supervisor, tells how Roche is progressing from manual processes to automated systems such as radio frequency identification and voice.
Roche is facing a number of challenges in its warehouse operations, not the least of which is a drive to do more with less. As a result, the company has had to enhance some processes, reduce overtime and rely on Lean technologies to streamline basic operations, Wheeler says.
Roche competes in the medical and pharmaceuticals field, a business where components are often expensive, and pilferage during transport is a major concern. Nevertheless, says Wheeler, there are ways to cut costs without jeopardizing the reliable and secure handling of product. Employees, for example, have been asked to be more creative about the way they do their jobs. To combat stagnation, they're looking at methods for boosting productivity "without working themselves into the ground." In addition, the company has embraced new forms of technology to eliminate manual processes wherever possible. Transfer moves, for example, are now recorded by radio-frequency scans, instead of being noted by hand.
Given the natural reluctance to change, especially among veteran workers who might be close to retirement, the switch hasn't necessarily been easy. "In our group, I've got more senior individuals doing the same repetitive route [within the warehouse]," says Wheeler. "It took a while to get them to do things differently." In the end, however, most employees were gratified with the opportunity to change up their routines, not to mention the opportunity for input.
Many tasks in Roche's warehouses were manual. The use of RF guns and voice technology has helped the company to scrap a substantial amount of paperwork, according to Wheeler. Conveyors are replacing picking by cart, speeding up processing time. In addition, the company has swapped a legacy warehouse-management system for a new application that ties in with its enterprise resource planning software.
To ensure a smooth transition between systems, the company is implementing the new technology in phases. It began with receiving - what Wheeler calls the least riskiest operation - and moved on to shipping. "The technology," he says, "is going to continue to get better and better."
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