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Blue Bell Creameries of Brenham, Texas, started out in 1907 making butter for the local market and has since grown into a major producer of ice cream and other frozen desserts, which are famous among consumers for their homemade styles and flavors. Although Blue Bell only is available in around 20 percent of the nation's supermarkets, located mostly in the South and Southwest, it ranks as one of the top three best-selling ice cream brands in the country.
Blue Bell chooses to make, sell and distribute all products in-house. To accomplish those tasks, it employs four factories, 45 distribution centers and 2,800 employees. "We manage about 2,500 SKUs of raw and intermediate items in our supply chain that eventually are made into 250 finished-goods SKUs," says Jim Kruse, controller.
While hand-made is a good thing when it comes to taste, managing the supply chain with manual processes became an issue for Blue Bell as its market and sales volume grew. "In the past, we would record everything on paper," says Kruse. "When supplies came in from one of our vendors, we would unload the truck and check off everything on the bill of lading manually. We would then take that piece of paper up to our purchasing department, where people would manually compare everything on the invoice to the bill of lading. A couple of days later, purchasing agents would actually enter the shipment as received. So you can see, we had a lot of timing issues, a lot of information lags, which created a number of problems for us."
Kruse knew that the company needed to move to a real-time, mobile system based on barcodes and handheld scanners. After a nine-month search that involved evaluations of several companies, Blue Bell elected to implement Gemini mobile software from ClearOrbit along with Symbol handheld computers. The ClearOrbit Gemini product is designed specifically to work with Oracle Process Manufacturing (OPM), which was a must for Blue Bell. "We had to have something that worked very well with Oracle as well as a solution that met our needs from a transaction perspective," says Kruse.
The solution also had to pass Blue Bell's corporate selection criteria. "We evaluate all purchases, whether it is services, products, ingredients, whatever - and we evaluate them on quality, service and price. When we looked at the quality of ClearOrbit's Gemini OPM product, which we evaluated through demos, visits to existing customers and so on, we concluded that it was a good quality product that was capable of doing all that we needed and more. It works well with Oracle and is competitively priced." ClearOrbit also offers excellent service support, Kruse says, "though we have not really needed that. In fact, the day we went live, in April of last year, the service department at ClearOrbit called us to see if we actually were up and running. They had not heard from us, so they were wondering if it had happened."
Kruse stresses that Blue Bell did not do a "big bang" implementation, but rather implemented small pieces at a time. "We took little baby steps," he says. "We would see a paper process that we wanted to streamline or lean up and work on that. When we were comfortable with operating that process in a paperless fashion, we would move on to something else." Those small changes added up quickly, he says. "Pretty soon, we were doing things a lot differently than we had just a few months earlier, but we eased into it."
Blue Bell had learned the value of this approach when it implemented Oracle, a process that began in 1998, Kruse says. "When we first implemented Oracle ERP we simply could not use all the functionality we had, so we slowly implemented new applications as we went along. Blue Bell has also gone through several Oracle upgrades and is now on a recent version of Oracle 11i.
Implementation of ClearOrbit and the use of barcodes and mobile devices "have eliminated a lot of our timing issues," Kruse says. "We are working on doing away with all that paper shuffling and are now scanning and automatically receiving, moving and transferring goods, processing returns and cycle counting." This has given a lot more responsibility to workers on the floor, he notes. "They no longer are moving boxes around; they are inventory specialists."
Blue Bell's employees have taken this change and run with it, he says. "One thing that we did early in the process through our ClearOrbit implementation was to get the employees who would be using this system involved early on to help us define the process. They really jumped on board with it."
Another benefit of the new system is the help it provides Blue Bell in complying with lot tracking requirements of the 2002 Bio Security Act. "The leanest way to process lot numbers is via a mobile device and that was one of the leading drivers for us to go with a product like ClearOrbit," says Kruse. "We track vendor lot numbers religiously throughout the whole process, including quality control tests." The Oracle system runs the electronic lot genealogy reports to be able to trace items one step forward and one step back as required in the regulations. "We have to be able to do that tracking within a 24-hour period, but we are able to do it much faster than that," he says.
Overall, since implementing the ClearOrbit system, Blue Bell has a much better handle on its inventory and is able to collect more accurate and timely data with fewer people, Kruse says. "The system allows our employees to be more efficient with their time, therefore ultimately resulting in labor savings because they can get more done in the same time."
While the company has not quantified savings, Kruse says "it is like moving from doing things on a piece of paper in longhand to Microsoft Excel. You know it is going to improve the process and deliver benefits." He also notes that having this system in place also has enabled the company to make better use of its Oracle ERP system.
"The one thing I want to stress to anyone who may be implementing a system like this is to get users involved early on," says Kruse. "That will make the project go a whole lot smoother and will enable you to be much more effective down the road."
Blue Bell Creameries, www.bluebell.com
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