Automating distribution systems

by Shane Whitaker, Baking & Snack
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Through the years, bakeries have consistently updated their operations to become more efficient. They’ve also added lines to meet the latest baked food trends. Sometimes they physically expand their facilities to do this, but other times, they don’t want to add more space, so they look to build new lines in their existing floor plans.

When bakeries increase production and packaging operations without expanding the plant, they often encroach on storage or ­shipping space. In turn, this means they have less room for staging deliveries for distribution. While bakeries have invested in automating production, one area they have often neglected updating is distribution.

“Once you get beyond the packaging line or the stacker, the environment in many bakeries hasn’t changed in the past 60 years,”

said Ralf Ulmer, executive vice-president of sales, ToolBox Software North America Inc., St. Paul, MN.

Most bakeries face three main concerns in the order-fulfillment and distribution areas, according to Marc Braun, president, Pcdata, Inc., East Granby, CT. First, he said, no real-time visibility of what’s going on in shipping exists, which combines with a lot of individual decision making to create distribution errors. Second, bakeries deal with daily and seasonal variability. Third, the loss of trays, baskets, racks and other material handling equipment (MHE) costs the industry millions of dollars annually.

These represent some of the chief issues with using paper-based distribution, but options exist for bakeries to streamline shipping using paperless dispatching and warehousing software and equipment to bring this area into the 21st century.

Shipping software solutions

While distribution systems vary dramatically, the majority still fill orders as they did 50 or 60 years ago, using paper pick sheets to show how much of which product has been ordered by each customer, according to Mr. Braun.

“The orders are crossed off or adjusted based on the amounts fulfilled, and the results entered back into the system by hand at the end of the day or the next day,” he said.

Because of improper decision making in the warehouse, orders are filled incorrectly and mis-shipments occur. “Mistakes happen mainly because it is too easy to make one, such as misreading a product label or reading a number on the next line of a pick sheet and associating that number with the wrong customer,” Mr. Braun concluded.

Other major issues include unintended overproduction, undetected misappropriations and an unknown amount of “unaccounted-for” baked foods. To alleviate these issues, bakeries can employ supply chain management solutions. These combine software and hardware within the shipping area and depots to ensure that products are properly picked, staged and loaded onto delivery vehicles. Both Pcdata and ToolBox have tailored their distribution products to the baking industry.

For fresh bread distribution, Mr. Braun said, bakeries have used technologies such as radio frequency and hand scanning to facilitate order fulfillment, tracking and tracing to delivery. “Many traditional warehouse technologies don’t cope well with specific dynamics we deal with in baking,” he said. “In fact, only one type of technology, put-to-light, has proven to deliver the one-year ROI everyone is looking for.”

At the heart of Pcdata’s suite of solutions is Distrib, a paperless dispatch software that works with both put-to-light systems or voice headsets.

DispoTool from ToolBox uses ­either pick-to-light or put-to-light ­paperless dispatching, both of which are designed to improve productivity and picking accuracy, Mr. Ulmer said.

Understanding pick and put

Pick-to-light distribution assigns a specific position to every product, whereas a put-to-light system dispenses products to customers or routes. Both generally use multicolored lighted displays to direct workers in shipping areas, and because they increase efficiency compared to paper-based systems, the number of people required in shipping can generally be reduced by one-third, according to Mr. Ulmer.

The put-to-light Distrib matches customer orders against production. The operator selects a product by scanning the barcode on the bag or typing in the product code and confirming the number of products. “This will trigger the displays, hung throughout the shipping area, to show how much each customer should receive,” Mr. Braun explained. “Different operators use different colors on the displays. When the operator has passed all the displays, he or she should have nothing left.”

Using a workstation or handhelds, operators confirm they have finished that stack. The transaction is then recorded in real time and the order status updated. “The shipping supervisor can see what the status is of the order filling for the day at one glance of the screen,” he observed. “At the close of the day, the bakery will know how much product was put out to each customer and how much was delivered versus the day’s orders.”

Using Pcdata’s Production Count module, production totals are automatically logged, and Mr. Braun said bakeries can review discrepancies to understand why there was a difference compared with the day’s order.

Production management is ­another key aspect of ToolBox’s dispoTool, according to Mr. Ulmer. “More of our installations today request that our systems be linked into the bakery for traceability,” he said. “We do not just start after the packing line or stacker, but can we start any step further, so they can get a full traceability.”

The company provides customized solutions, and with its 700-plus installations in bakeriers around the world, Mr. Ulmer pointed out that no two are the same. “We deliver three things — hardware, software and consulting,” he explained. “It offers real consulting to have the right solution at each individual site, not only for the customer but also for each individual bakery or depot. We need to know the volume and the layout. Arrival and departure times are different at each site, and we have to look at it all to find the best optimized solution.”

 To reduce unaccounted-for products and labor, shipping systems must be set up in the best possible way, and dispoTool assists bakeries in reaching OTIF, on time, in full, in distribution, Mr. Ulmer said.

Bakers often claim that their ­facilities are too small for a paperless distribution system, Mr. Braun said. “But with 30% labor savings put-to-light gives on average, even with only three people in shipping, it already starts to make sense,” he noted.

Distrib XE was designed specifically for smaller bakeries and depots with up to 50 customers or routes. The put-to-light solution doesn’t require specialized electrical installation work.

“A system will set up in a day or less and offers the most important functionality needed at most bakeries,” he added. “First installations have shown the same labor savings as we know from full-blown systems. We think the simplicity of Distrib XE will lower the hurdle of getting this technology into in smaller bakeries.”

Distribution software and equipment can make bakeries more ­efficient when building and loading fresh bakery orders onto delivery trucks. It also can assist with traceability in the production facility. These investments also can offer a quick ROI by reducing labor and unaccounted-for products.   

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