Warehousing operations and productivity have gotten significantly better over the past decade thanks to sophisticated WMS software, material handling systems, scanning devices, voice recognition and other technologies. But for GENCO Supply Chain Solutions, one of the largest third-party logistics providers in North America, current warehouse technologies and processes are still too error-prone, time consuming and labor intensive.
"Manually entered data provides the opportunity for inaccuracies," says Cary Cameron, senior vice president, strategic processes and technologies, at the Pittsburgh-based company. "When an operator has to reach for an RF device to scan or manually enter in location and pallet information, they are losing productivity. We wanted a solution that allows the operator to simply drive product to and from locations--a solution where we didn't have to rely on the operators to assign locations."
GENCO Supply Chain Solutions manages more than 125 operations and 37 million square feet of warehouse space throughout North America for a diverse range of retail, manufacturing and government customers. The 110-year-old company provides initial and ongoing value through a complete range of supply chain solutions for over 150 customers. It knows about the importance of warehouse efficiency and productivity.
Cameron points out that the training process for warehouse workers is also too time consuming. Understanding all the functions and menu options on the RF device takes too much time to learn, especially as labor shortages in the industry continue to get worse.
"We wanted a solution that allows us to have a new hire productive in a matter of minutes not days," she says.
Inaccuracy caused by flawed processes also adds to the amount of audits needed to avoid errors.
"Our flaw was improper location identification of pallets," she says. "We wanted a solution that corrected the root cause of the problem.
The solution that GENCO and its technology partner Sky-Trax developed and implemented is an optically enabled real-time location system (RTLS) that enables inch-accurate tracking of assets inside warehouses, distribution centers and manufacturing facilities. The system eliminates operator-dependent data collection processes.
The value of the RTLS system is in its ability to track and verify each and every move from putaway to picking to staging to shipping with 100 percent accuracy. The optical RTLS innovation "mistake proofs" the operational process. It removes the human interaction completely, so no accuracy errors can occur and the operator does not stop to pick up a RF device to scan any barcodes. The elimination of the RF device alone allows productivity gains to be realized.
Before the technology was implemented, GENCO forklift drivers were averaging 14.9 pallets per hour with a goal of 15 pallets per hour. After the technology was implemented, GENCO has been averaging 18.5 pallets per hour, or 3.5 pallets above its goal.
"Through our data analysis, we have identified the process is capable of reaching upwards of 40 pallets per hour," says Cameron," but additional operational improvements are needed. "This data has allowed us to remove one forklift driver from the process already."
How It Works
At the heart of the optical RTLS technology is a series of charge-couple device (CCD) cameras that capture digital images in rapid succession. They are mounted to the material handling equipment to read barcodes on the pallets being moved and on 2D barcodes placed in a grid pattern in the warehouse ceiling. These 2D ceiling barcode markers are mapped to a facility CAD drawing. The combination of the cameras, barcodes, CAD technology and other software create a real-time system that knows where all pallets and lift trucks are within the warehouse at any instant.
For pallet and location identification, two optical CCD cameras are installed on the forklift to read the barcodes: one facing forward and one facing upward toward the ceiling. The forward facing camera reads the pallet barcode and the upward-facing camera reads the location labels in the ceiling to provide the x/y coordinates within the building and the direction the vehicle is traveling. A durable photo beam pallet detector is mounted on the forks to record whether the vehicle is carrying a pallet. A time-of-flight-laser-height sensor provides the storage level z coordinate. Either racked or bulk storage locations can be utilized with this system.
The x, y and z information is relayed back to the embedded computer mounted on the forklift to calculate the exact location in the warehouse that the pallet is being located into or out of. A user interface computer screen is mounted as a visual so that the operator can see that the pallet move was completed successfully. Interfaces with the resident WMS record the moves and direct the next task.
In fact, the optical camera technology data integrates with any WMS or ERP solution and gives the operation the ability to add features that may not be present in the WMS today, such as interleaving, routing and safety alerts. The system does not require ancillary tagging to product such as an RFID tag. CCD cameras can interpret both linear and 2D labels that are already on the pallets or product. Safety-related benefits include pedestrian warning systems, proximity sensors, warning lights, bells, and other anti-collision systems. These safety features allow a level of safety in the warehouse that's never been available before.
The RTLS system uses geometry along with barcode technology to determine the accurate location of the forklift and the pallets. The system has the ability to achieve inch-accuracy, whereas other RTLS systems on the market are significantly less granular because they are designed to track assets such as people, trailers, and larger material within feet or meters. A warehouse operation requires exact tracking of pallets to a specific location in the facility. Being a foot or two off on location accuracy is not acceptable. With optical RTLS, the camera only needs to see one location marker in the ceiling to get a precise, accurate-to-the-inch location. Barcodes, which are the fixed portion of the system, are proven and stable technologies unlike some of the newer RF-related technologies still under development.
Practical and Effective
The beauty of this innovation is its practicality, according to Cameron, who adds that its ease of installation, flexibility and scalability combined make this technology a win-win for all warehouse operations. The optical cameras are small and can be mounted to provide the best solution for a particular process. The location of the cameras and the markers can be moved within a matter of minutes.
The system is very cost effective compared to other RTLS solutions. Obstructions in the building are no problem since the CCD cameras only need to see one label. If something is in the way, such as a light, an additional location marker is simply added to the configuration and the problem is solved. In addition to obstructions, facilities often have varying ceiling heights. If a building has multiple heights, the size of the 2D location marker in the ceiling is adjusted to a larger or smaller size. A 32-foot ceiling requires a 14-inch by 14-inch marker whereas a 12-foot ceiling would require an 8-inch-by-eight-inch marker.
"Now that the cameras are collecting the data, handheld RF devices used in many operations can be utilized on other operational areas or they may be decommissioned," says Cameron. "If they are decommissioned, the ongoing maintenance and support agreements on them can be terminated allowing additional cost savings."
An image taken from above the warehouse floor will show the travel paths of the forklifts based on a given start/stop time. This visual image is useful to see where congestion is occurring as well as the overall travel distances the forklifts are experiencing.
The user interface has two screens. The left screen is displayed when the transaction is successful and the right screen shows an error was made, thereby allowing the operator to correct the issue immediately.
With the optical CCD cameras recording several times per second more data is captured than ever before in a warehouse operation. The data directly supports better equipment utilization, reducing unnecessary material handling equipment, real-time visibility of the operational progress and a real-time visual screen of all activity.
The RTLS system also can detect a problem at the point of failure. If a move in the warehouse is incorrect, the user interface screen displays a red background to alert the operator that an error is occurring. An example of such an error is in the picking process. Prior to this technology, if an incorrect pallet was picked and staged on the dock, it would not be detected until a quality assurance person audited the shipment prior to loading.
Operationally, the optical RTLS system allows the operator to just pick up the pallet up from the "from" location and move it to the "to" location without having to do anything else. The goal of the technology is to remove operator-based points of failure in the operation such as invalid moves and incomplete transactions that result in lost pallets.
"We have the system fully deployed in a 328,000-square-foot facility and have moved tens of thousands of pallets with 100 percent accuracy," says Cameron, who adds that Sky-Trax now has a separate implementation in New Zealand.
The technology is installed in a production environment at GENCO's Atlanta warehouse on 10 forklifts. GENCO now has full visibility of the forklifts at all times, so it can be more proactive in making continuous improvements based on the available data. Over 30,000 pallets have been moved with 100 percent pallet and location accuracy. GENCO is now implementing additional features that will provide even further savings. Routing has been installed at the Atlanta operation and interleaving has just been rolled out in test mode.
"We have determined our baseline without interleaving and routing," says Cameron. "We expect a 50 to 60 percent efficiency gain once we have it fully tested."
Task interleaving and routing will allow an increase in forklift utilization by reducing ravel distance and the shipment verification will ensure that the right pallet was loaded through the right dock door (based on trailer assignments.)
GENCO's second installation at a facility in central Pennsylvania is in the design phase and should be implemented in the first quarter of 2009. A third project is under way with an non-GENCO-run operation.
"The Atlanta warehouse customer has been extremely satisfied with the implementation," says Cameron. "We've doubled our putaway and picking productivity and improved accuracy. The financial impact has been significant. By driving productivity and accuracy improvements throughout our operations, additional cost savings will be gained as will a competitive advantage."
This innovation has the potential to impact the supply chain in many ways beyond its current application, according to Cameron.
"We have proven this technology can replace manual data entry collection to truly provide automatic identification into operations," says Cameron. "While we are using this for the tracking of pallets and forklifts, it is also capable of being installed in other methods, such as on a dock door to read barcodes on items as they are loaded or unloaded."
Many companies are trying to do location identification today with RF and RFID without much success. The technology can be used in conjunction with RFID if needed. Pallets that are RFID-tagged can be read with an RFID reader while the location identification can be completed with the optical CCD cameras.
According to Cameron, the successful development of the optical RTLS system is the result of six to eight months collaboration between GENCO Supply Chain Solutions and New Castle, Del.-based Sky-Trax.
"The communication between our teams has been a critical factor in the success of this innovation," says Cameron. "Our partnership allows GENCO Supply Chain Solutions to provide the operational engineering while Sky-Trax provides the technical engineering for the hardware. There have been many 'what if...' conversations between us, and it's this level of collaboration that's needed in the supply chain to continuously remove non-productive tasks so facilities can realize productivity and accuracy gains."
While the majority of the collaboration has been between these two companies, Cameron adds that the process has been greatly enhanced with support from its forklift maintenance company and an engineering firm, both of which assisted with the wiring needs of the hardware.
"Working with many different vendors allowed us to install the hardware successfully; however, it was the facility teammates that provided invaluable feedback on everything. They are the key members of the team. They made sure we provided them with a tool that made their daily tasks easier.
According to Larry Mahan, Sky-Trax president and chief operating officer, optical RTLS is powered by his company's Total-Trax system, which provides 100-percent location and pallet identification accuracy along with significant productivity improvements and fast return on investment. The application controlling the hardware is internal GENCO-written code. This custom software layer provides additional features that enhance existing WMS capabilities and a greater range of data for ongoing analytics and operational improvements.
"GENCO exemplifies the type of collaborative efforts with our partners that we value," says Mahan. "Together, we've designed a system that significantly increases warehouse productivity and accuracy."
Field studies have confirmed the system's capabilities that include a reduction in driver training time from hours to minutes and cost reductions in fewer forklifts needed. Additionally, the complete system automatically collects valuable new operational data that includes forklift time traveled with or without product, travel miles and routes traveled, idle non-moving time, number of times a pallet is touched, speed of the material handling equipment, percentage of aisle congestion, and near-collision information among other benefits.
"Receiving first-runner up honors in the Innovation Award affirms our confidence in our ongoing partnership with Sky-Trax," says Cameron. "We were able to quickly implement Sky-Trax technologies to improve our productivity in supply chain facilities. We look forward to expanding our use of Sky-Trax to create efficiencies and increase productivity levels for our customers."
Sky-Trax Inc., www.Sky-Trax.com
GENCO Supply Chain Solutions, www.genco.com
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