Put Your Finger On Warehouse Productivity Gains

Handheld computers are commonplace in most warehouses. However, a packaged goods manufacturer finds forklift-mounted touch screens a better solution to pick and put away pallets.

If you have ever used a vending machine or searched grocery store aisles for a snack, you almost certainly recognize the name Lance, Inc. (hint: think Captain's Wafers). Conversely, the name Vista Bakery probably doesn't ring a bell. However, low name recognition does not mean you haven't seen the company's products.

Vista Bakery is, in fact, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lance, which reported $486 million in gross sales in 1998. While Lance produces plenty of products under its own label, Vista Bakery primarily manufactures crackers and cookies for other companies. One of the largest retail stores in the world, for instance, contracts Vista Bakery to make its saltines. This store's private label is then applied to the boxes and shipped to stores throughout the country. The 600 employees at Vista Bakery produce enough products to require 1,100 SKUs (stock keeping units). A daily average of 25 full truckloads is shipped from the facility in Burlington, IA. Some of the shipments go directly to Vista Bakery's customers. Other shipments are sent to a 60,000-square-foot, off-site warehouse. The balance of the products is stored at the Burlington plant, which has 100,000 square feet of warehouse space.

Eliminate Physical Inventory Count
Until recently, managing inventory at the two warehouses was a manual task for Vista Bakery. The process was made even more complicated because the age of the products being shipped is critical. For example, the oldest pallets of crackers in inventory have to be shipped before the newest ones. This process rotates the stock and ensures that all items are fresh when they arrive at a retail store.

Eighteen months ago, Vista Bakery implemented a warehouse management system (WMS) that was developed in-house. The company's information technology (IT) staff also designed and installed a transportation management system to handle its shipping. The new system allows Vista Bakery to manage its inventory in real time. Instead of doing a physical inventory count every four weeks, the company now only conducts spot checks. "Each month, we choose a certain location in the warehouse, and the system indicates the amount of inventory that should be there," says Stacy Schlicher, system administrator at Vista Bakery. "We check the system's inventory numbers against the amount of inventory that is actually there."

Touch Screens Guide Forklift Drivers
It's not unusual for companies to install handheld computers with integrated radio frequency (RF) technology for use in their warehouses. However, Vista Bakery opted to install touch screen computers from Citadel Computer Corporation instead of handheld computers. The touch screens are mounted on nine forklifts located at the company's two warehouses. "We chose touch screens for the forklifts because we wanted as few moving parts as possible," relays Schlicher. "The training was also very straightforward. The only information that can be accessed from the touch screens is the data that we supply to the drivers."

As the products roll off the production line, forklift drivers scan the bar code label attached to each pallet. The bar code labels, which are generated by Zebra Technologies' printers, act as license plates for each pallet. A driver scans the label, and the touch screen displays where the pallet should be delivered. The driver places the pallet in inventory and touches the screen's "OK" icon to confirm delivery. The inventory is updated in real time.

The system is similar for drivers who remove inventory from the warehouse. The touch screen displays the product type. A driver scans the bar code label on the pallet and confirms it on the touch screen. The touch screen then displays the appropriate dock from which the pallet will be shipped. The driver drops off the pallet, scans the bar code label, and confirms the delivery on the touch screen.

Vista Bakery's new WMS is a far cry from the company's previous paper-based system. Pen and paper have been replaced by touch screens and RF technology. Physical inventory counts have been replaced by spot checks. In assessing the operations at Vista Bakery, Schlicher says, "We had to move forward and be more efficient."Ed Hess