Having proved its power to speed the store checklane, bar-code symbology is now moving into the warehouse area and driving more efficient product receiving, put-away and retrieval.
Retailers and wholesalers have not fully exploited the technology for warehouse operations, but those who have introduced bar coding -- if only in a limited way -- wield a powerful tool for tracking pallet flow and streamlining product-handling tasks.
Companies whose warehouse operations incorporate efficiency-driven programs like cross-docking and advanced use of electronic data interchange said bar coding complements those efforts well, raising productivity levels even further.
"It's a technology whose time has come," said Charlie Hunter, distribution center manager at Harvest Foods, Little Rock, Ark. Although few companies are using bar coding extensively in the warehouse today, several executives told SN they plan to introduce or expand it over the next few years.
Smart & Final, a cash-and-carry operator based in Vernon, Calif., has documented substantial cost savings after implementing bar coding two years ago at its main grocery warehouse in Vernon.
"There's been a big payback. We had a return on investment at Vernon of $540,000 in one year," said John Goneau, president of Port Stockton Food Distributors, Stockton, Calif., a food-service subsidiary of Smart & Final.
Goneau said the savings stemmed from the company's ability to track product flow and forklift operators closely and integrate the data with a labor management program
On the strength of those results, Smart & Final will expand use of bar coding when Port Stockton Food Distributors opens its new warehouse in Stockton later this month.
All pallets received at the new warehouse will be labeled with bar codes upon arrival at the dock, Goneau said. "We will print out the purchase order and put the bar code on the pallet, along with all of our information, when it comes in. We will apply our bar code right when it hits the dock."
The practice of tracking employees handling each pallet and following the pallet's trail from dock to slot to truck provides increased accountability for product damage and delays, and ultimately, improves merchandise quality, Goneau said.
Improved employee accountability and efficiency are among the dividends collected by Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C., when it introduced bar coding to the warehouse.
Ingles' warehouse employees tag pallets upon receiving them and read them with handheld scanners, which communicate product status to the warehouse mainframe computer, said Bob Jenkins, assistant data processing manager.
When merchandise is taken out of the warehouse, the mainframe data base is updated on a real-time basis. "Once the product is let down out of a storage slot into a picking slot, the bar code is removed from the pallet tag and scanned out of the system" via handheld scanners, he said.
"Operationally, it has improved the forklift drivers' job tremendously. Now we can tell them where the product is at -- in which aisle and in which storage slot in that aisle," Jenkins said. Eliminating handwritten notes greatly reduces errors and minimizes delays in locating and moving merchandise.
Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, uses bar coding as part of a larger radio-frequency data communications system it rolled out to two warehouses last year.
"We're using RF put-away now and that's our only [use of] bar coding," said Don Knudsen, director of corporate distribution services. "It tracks pallet productivity, but because our system already knows where that pallet's going, we don't scan the pallet or the slot position."
Hannaford uses the pallet bar code data to develop work assignments for forklift operators, while at the same time creating employee accountability. "The pallet driver scans the bar code, and it records that he is the one that is taking the pallet to its assigned location," he said.
"To a degree it has improved the opportunity for us to do a follow-up," Knudsen said. "We've just finished creating the engineering labor standard [for forklift operator performance] that goes with it, so we can't say it's generated the savings yet. But overall, it's improved control and [product] flow."