Dispatching Automation

by Shane Whitaker
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Bakeries generally produce a large variety of products and deliver them to many customers that have various order sizes. This means a huge mix of products needs to crisscross the warehouse to reach the end customer quickly and accurately. Yet many bakeries still rely on clipboards with sheets of paper to ensure orders get properly staged and loaded onto route trucks.

Such paper-based systems can lead to many errors because numbers can be misread, products improperly picked and placed, and orders incorrectly rationed if shortages occur for a particular item. To avoid these issues and improve labor efficiency, many bakeries are installing warehouse management systems (WMS) and/or paperless dispatching methods.

“Success in distribution is simply based on how well you control three aspects of your product: item, quantity and location,” said Kelson Elam, managing partner, Genesta, Rockwall, TX. “All of Genesta’s tools drive control of these three aspects through bar-code scanning, voice direction and data collection. The systems that enable these controls are selected to answer the [bakers’] needs, simplify their issues and allow them to build forward.”

Distribution software is not an off-the-shelf purchase, and dispatching systems are generally customized to a bakery’s specific requirements and products. Several vendors address this need and offer individualized solutions to meet bakeries’ particular needs.

LABOR SAVINGS.

Bakeries generally install dispatching systems as a way to reduce labor. “To remain competitive, bakeries must cut costs in dispatching,” said Joerg Schlag, president and CEO, ToolBox Software North America, Inc., St. Paul, MN. “The bakeries using dispoTool report up to 30% of savings in labor costs, and payback periods from 12 to 18 month are the norm. Not to mention the savings from accuracy and On-Time-In-Full [order fulfillment].” (See “Labriola in Ship Shape.”)

ToolBox’s dispoTool paperless dispatching and WMS is specially designed for bakeries, and the company’s core market is independent bakeries. “Independent means unique,” Mr. Schlag said. “Not only unique in quality and variety of products but also in organization and their distribution process.”

As such, the company offers customized systems. “A distribution system is not only a tool for saving money, but more importantly, it will be a management system,” he said. “The bottleneck in bakeries is usually dispatching and distribution. Eliminating this issue, along with track and trace, is the core target of distribution systems in the future.”

In addition to installing its pick-to-light or put-to-light functions that use multicolored displays, ToolBox now offers more connection tools for multiple-plant bakeries, thus enabling intercompany data exchange. “We also completed some installations for complete track-and-trace of batches throughout production in the US and Canada,” Mr. Schlag added.

A WMS adds value because the dispatching process is labor intensive when no technology is involved, according to Marc Braun, president of US operations, Pcdata, Inc., East Granby, CT. “[Operators] are always walking around with papers in their hands rather than the product they need to be dispensing, and that takes away their effectiveness,” he said. “It actually hinders getting done what needs to be done.”

He estimated bakeries could earn 30 to 40% labor savings with the company’s Distrib WMS; however, the real payback is by providing greater service to customers. “Accuracy is a big benefit,” Mr. Braun said. “I don’t know if that benefit typically is recognized before the system goes in. What I have heard on numerous occasions is, ‘We thought we were going to get labor savings, but it turns out that after we put the system in, the accuracy and the reduction in delivery errors actually turned out to be a bigger savings.’ ” (See “Path-to-Market for Hostess Brands.”)

Distribution systems from RMT Robotics, a Cimcorp Oy company, Grimsby, ON, can offer even greater labor savings because they rely on gantry robots to stage products ready for distribution rather than people. “Very little labor is needed to operate [these systems],” said Derek Rickard, RMT’s distribution systems manager. “Of course, you need people to replenish them, unless you have an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS), which some of our installations do have. Then, when they need a replenishment pallet, a signal is sent to the AS/RS, and it brings the pallet into the system.”

RMT Robotics merged with Cimcorp Oy, Ulvila, Finland, this past year, and the company is bringing Cimcorp’s MultiPick automated tray-picking system for fresh bakeries to North America. MultiPick is similar to the robotic case picking system that RMT had already offered, Mr. Rickard noted.

Space optimization is another big benefit of RMT’s picking solutions. Often, bakeries run out of room as they increase the number of SKUs they produce. “Because of the way we store the product with minimal space around each stack — you don’t have manual walkways — we can go into a lot less space than manual picking operations,” Mr. Rickard noted.

VOICE-ACTIVATED.

Genesta offers voice-picking solutions, in which workers use speech-recognition software to access information by literally talking to a computer. The company recently transitioned a refrigerated and frozen foods distributor to this system, replacing handheld computers. After the distributor switched from a paper-based process to the handhelds approximately 12 years ago, its distribution ran smoothly for quite a while, according to Brian Mahoney, Genesta’s director of logistics.

“But now, shipping couldn’t keep pace with receiving,” he said. “Orders were rushed. Errors increased. Products were damaged. Looking more closely, we found that its order profile had changed and customers were buying fewer full pallets of product and more hand-picked cases. The selection system was still effective, but the selection device was holding them back.”

The distributor converted from screen-based selection to voice picking. “Gone now are the big screen devices that are difficult to manage when wearing gloves in the cooler,” Mr. Mahoney said. “Gone is the hand-punching of items and quantities. Simply scan the label, and confirm the count. With a wearable computer, the selector’s hands are free, and their eyes are focused looking to the next location. Production is up. Errors are down. Product is better handled.”

TRACK AND TRACE.

Many of the bakers with whom Genesta has spoken lately are concerned about supply chain traceability, according to Mr. Mahoney. “The new Food Safety Modernization Act regulations have put a heavy burden on bakers to trace 1,000 ingredients to 10,000 customers with only hours to produce the report,” he said. “Our approach is to apply lot control from the receiving dock in the bakery to the display rack in the store and pull the report from anyone’s keyboard. We update system disciplines to baking procedures that are already there and let our shipping systems tie it all together. We’ve even applied this control to the racks, trays and dollies that the bakeries use to deliver product to the stores.”

Traceability is one of the main features of RMT’s warehouse and distribution systems, according to Mr. Rickard. The systems take data from production such as lot numbers or machine numbers, and they keep that information through the entire supply chain. “One of the things that I think happens in manual systems is that once the product gets dropped off in a pick location, all of the data associated with that product is lost, so they don’t have the traceability that an automated system can have,” he said.

While Distrib WMS is Pcdata’s core module, the company offers several add-ons such as a dock load management solution that automatically scans products being loaded or unloaded from trucks, enabling bakeries to track and trace products.

Many bakeries have not made changes to their distribution systems for decades, and now may be the time to investigate the latest automated systems that can provide labor savings while at the same time improving accuracy and traceability.
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