Automation is king when it comes to warehouse distribution.In a bid to streamline warehousing and distribution practices so as to increase accuracy and efficiency and cut costs, wholesalers and retailers are applying the benefits of computerization to their operations like never before.The result is a new generation of information-driven systems and increasingly automated operating procedures that

Automation is king when it comes to warehouse distribution.

In a bid to streamline warehousing and distribution practices so as to increase accuracy and efficiency and cut costs, wholesalers and retailers are applying the benefits of computerization to their operations like never before.

The result is a new generation of information-driven systems and increasingly automated operating procedures that are fundamentally transforming how products are handled, stored, picked, stacked and shipped throughout the warehousing and distribution process.

The new types of computerized systems retailers and wholesalers are turning to vary widely. They range from radio frequency-based communication systems to computerized programs that point to the most efficient methods for picking and palletizing products.

"Over the last year or so, we've

increased our use of a radio frequency system to help control our inventory," said Gary Capshaw, vice president of logistics and quality service at Fleming Cos., Oklahoma City.

With the system, all information in the computer about specific product inventory location and inventory "is available on-line to the forklift operator. Having this capability is helping our warehouse employees perform their tasks much more efficiently," he said.

But it doesn't end there. Fleming now is also deploying a new generation of forklifts at several of its warehouses that will have the added capability of storing radio frequency-derived information in their own memory, Capshaw said.

So, for example, if a forklift operator is assigned to pull 15 different items, the driver can go on line with the mainframe before hitting the floor and request specific product location information. It can then be stored in the memory and obtained as each pull is completed.

John Batista, senior vice president of distribution at Super Food Services, Dayton, Ohio, also cited computer-driven and information-driven automation as driving forces in his company's warehouse operations.

Although the wholesaler may not be using a radio frequency system to transmit information, it is relying on new computer systems to hike its operating efficiency.

"Essentially, advancements in this whole area are creating a paperless warehouse for us. We are using the technology for tasks such as locating the product and putting the product away," Batista said.

"Basically, after we receive the product, we now ask the computer where to place it in relation to the pick slot. Rather than just using a bunch of figures, charts and maps like we used to do, the system automates that function for us," he said.

Another wholesaler, United Grocers, Portland, Ore., is relying on both radio-frequency transmission and advanced computerization for a quickly growing segment of its warehousing and distribution operation. "That's how we are now managing our inventory and controlling our replenishment," said Jim Schuh, general merchandise shift supervisor.

"A system on board the lift trucks directs the operator as to the best put-away directions. The driver keys in to the information received via radio frequency," Schuh said.

Over the last year or so, United has initiated several programs to upgrade its computerization capabilities, such as increasing board memory and speeding up downloading of information sent by the mainframe through radio frequency to the forklift.

Wholesalers, though, are not the only ones using computers for enhanced warehouse and distribution control.

"We use computers to keep track of our overhead storage, and to let us know about letdowns when they become necessary," said Bill Romley Jr., vice president of warehousing and distribution at Bashas' Markets, Chandler, Ariz.

"When a store orders the item, the pick slot is identified and the order comes down and is prepared for shipment. As we get into bigger warehouses, the more advanced technology is especially useful for keeping track of where everything is," Romley said.

Pathmark Stores, Woodbridge, N.J., for its part, has been converting from more traditional batch-mode mainframe technology to a more flexible computer system to streamline its operations and enable critical information to be more easily shared throughout various company divisions and departments.

Before switching to a new system, Pathmark's general merchandise, meat, frozen foods, produce, dairy and grocery distribution areas had their own computer applications, a situation that hindered response time and made on-line, intersystem sharing of data almost impossible.

Pathmark, though, took steps three years ago to begin designing an updated, data-based distribution system for its warehouse system.

The new system, which has to take into account all the variables involved in handling dairy, produce, meat and frozen foods, took almost a year to design. Joe Lacko, vice president of information services for Pathmark, admitted that the job of redesigning and implementing the system was not easy.

"But we know we would save money by having better control over product, greater warehouse efficiency, better labor control, better warehouse logistics, an enhanced ability to buy, fewer out-of-stocks, and the ability to get a better flow of products to the stores. The whole chain of events is now more efficient," Lacko said.

While dramatic changes in streamlining retailer and wholesaler operations have already taken place, trade observers said even more advanced systems now being unveiled could soon take hold in the industry.

For example, one chain in the Midwest is now in the process of deploying voice-recognition technology specifically designed for warehouse-distribution practices.

In this system, the weight of individual products is recorded when the item is picked off the shelf. In addition to recording that information in the forklift's computer memory, however, the voice-recognition software will also "read" the weight amount and then "announce" it to the operator.

"Because you'll be talking with the headset, you won't have to have a laser gun to read the weight. This will make a paperless pick operation possible," said one executive familiar with the situation, who asked not to be named.

Software is also being developed to direct and assign different-weight items onto different pallets. In this system, reportedly about to undergo testing at a large chain on the West Coast, the warehouse manager or supervisor enters a weight threshold in the computer for various types of pallets.

The system then generates a recommended packing scheme for each pallet that places the items closest to the maximum weight at the bottom of the pallet, with the lightest items on top. The software would also be programmed to reject items above the maximum.