Retailers seeking greater productivity and accuracy in their materials-handling operations are increasingly relying on radio frequency technology installed on forklifts and other warehouse equipment.
Not only does RF technology allow the warehouse manager to direct the operator's activities virtually anywhere in the distribution center, but it allows the operator to update files in the warehouse management system on-line, in real time.
One source estimated that the use of RF technology with materials-handling equipment could increase productivity by as much as 20%.
"The issue of materials handling and information handling is a major concern, because if you move products and don't properly move the information you lose control," said industry consultant Jim Tompkins, president of Tompkins Associates, Raleigh, N.C. "You've got to think of the materials handling and information handling as one."
A wholesaler who requested anonymity said, "The real gargantuan leaps are not the equipment itself, so much as the way it is accessorized with the data collection pieces that bring together the equipment, operator and mission all in a real-time, integrated way with the rest of the operations. That's the big jump."
Several retailers are installing or expanding their use of RF technology, either coinciding with new warehouse management systems or as part of routine equipment replacement or upgrades.
Within the next three years, Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla., will implement RF technology on all the forklifts used throughout its 15 distribution centers.
Winn-Dixie's Jacksonville distribution center is already using RF technology on its forklifts, and the Orlando distribution center will follow in the next three months.
"We know RF technology tied to our warehouse management system will increase our productivity and give us a more accurate accounting of our warehouse inventory," said Ray Gordon, director of warehousing and transportation at Winn-Dixie. He explained that forklift operators will be directed to their functions by the computer, instead of having to look up their next task on a paper list.
Giant Food Stores, Carlisle, Pa., is for the first time implementing a warehouse management system and radio frequency technology on materials-handling equipment at its perishables facility in Carlisle.
"Updating our materials-handling equipment, with six new double-deep highlifts for putaways and letdowns and 10 double-pallet jacks, will position us to implement new technology in radio frequency," said Frank DeLost, distribution center operations manager for Giant Food Stores.
He added that the warehouse management system would be linked through RF technology to its highlifts for directed putaways and directed letdowns. The warehouse system should improve inventory accuracy by approximately 15%, according to DeLost.
Giant Food Stores measures inventory accuracy in terms of the number of warehouse refusals, or number of times an operator goes to a slot and the product is not there. Right now it has 300 cases of warehouse refusals a week; it would like to cut this down by one-third.
DeLost added that new equipment should limit downtime and raise productivity by 5% to 10%.
Marty Baker, director of warehousing at Hy-Vee Food Stores, West Des Moines, Iowa, said the chain is exploring the possibility of integrating RF technology on the stackers used in the replenishment and putaway areas at its distribution center, though no date has been set. He estimated that RF technology in materials-handling equipment could increase productivity by as much as 20%.
Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., is in its second year of using RF on the forklifts at its distribution center.
"We already had a high level of productivity because of engineered labor standards, so the real benefit we got from radio frequency on the forklifts was to get real-time updating of the inventory files," said Renato Cellupica, vice president of distribution at Price Chopper.