The warehouse of the future knows no bounds.
In an increasingly mobile world, freed from the messy morass of wire and paper, distribution center operators are looking toward a sleek universe of invisible, real-time networks.
Many industry observers have noted a lag in the overall progress of mobile and wireless applications against earlier predictions.
However, it appears that there is more activity when it comes to the adoption of wireless applications in DCs across the country, particularly in the realm of radio frequency capabilities.
Speaking to an audience of warehouse managers and supply chain executives at the Productivity Convention and Exposition in Houston earlier this year, Roy Dube, a partner at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, New York, said, "Mobile and wireless [technology] will change the way you do business far more than the Internet has in the past five or six years."
Indeed, according to Paul Widener, distribution systems manager for KVAT Foods, Abingdon, Va., any distribution operation will be hard-pressed to be successful in the future without the aid of an advanced wireless solution.
More specifically, he was referring to the 802.11 RF standard developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and accepted by the networking industry in 1999. Randy Fletcher, vice president of logistics and supply chain management at Associated Grocers, Baton Rouge, La., expressed similar sentiments.
"The obsolescence factor is going to catch up soon," he said. "Vendors will stop supporting radios that are not compatible with the latest RF backbone.
"A lot of people are quickly changing. They have to adjust to meet demands of productivity and accuracy, and the providers will pretty much force the issue."
In Widener's opinion, the greatest benefits derived from the 802.11 standard at his warehouse have been increased flexibility and falling prices.
"Previously, every vendor had their own thing," he said. "If you were using RF technology, you were really locked into one vendor, and because it was proprietary, it [the equipment] was very expensive."
With a vendor-independent standard comes a dramatic reduction in price for implementing wireless networks, and the ability to mix and match products, he said.
Dube believes 802.11 will become a virtual standard in warehouse operations in the not-too-distant future.
His company surveyed roughly 150 companies of varied interests about their plans for the technology and found that 25% were currently using the standard for their RF networks, while approximately 50% intended to explore the possibility within the year. The RF network has seen a rapid ascension, Widener said.
"Prior to 1997, we had never even thought about putting an RF system in," he said.
At KVAT, the systems integrating with the warehouse management system -- including computer terminals residing on the forklift to do real-time inventory counts and the handheld scanners used at receiving -- are part of the RF network.
The inventory system works via small tags affixed to a pallet, trailer, tractor or forklift, identifying objects by code.
In addition, the company recently installed a wireless, voice-enabled picking system from Vocollect, Pittsburgh.
The system uses Talkman terminals, a voice-activated device worn on a picker's belt that provides detailed picking instructions via voice response, leaving the hands free and eliminating the cumbersome paper burden.
According to Widener, the primary advantage is an improvement in accuracy, as the system provides a positive, verifiable verbal confirmation from the selector that he is at the right location.
He has also seen an increase in productivity, and added that the system makes for a safer and more ergonomically sound workplace.
In March of this year, Associated Grocers updated the RF scanning backbone for distribution operations using 802.11 technology, Fletcher told SN.
The 2.4 gigahertz system replaced a backbone running on 900 megahertz, which did not operate within the 802.11 standard. The operation has seen improvements in reliability, speed and productivity since the new system was put in place.
The RF network currently supports various inventory functions, such as put-aways and let-downs. The company has already decided to implement a voice-selection system similar to the one in use at KVAT, although the vendor and the time line are still undecided, Fletcher said.
However, he feels certain that this is an area of great potential.
Prudencio Pineda, senior vice president of warehousing and logistics at Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, is also looking toward the growth of his RF network.
"Everything points in that direction," he said. "When you look at efficiencies, and lowered operating costs, the benefits are simply too great to be ignored."
After some initial hesitation, Minyard went ahead with an RF-enabled inventory system a little over a year ago. The retailer works with AquiTec, Chicago, for all its wireless projects, which was formerly known as Worldwide Chain Store Systems.
According to Pineda, the system has delivered on its promise.
"We have seen a 10% increase in accuracy in receiving and about a 15% increase in productivity as far as put-away is concerned," he said.
The increase in productivity is realized primarily by the elimination of "dead-heading," or returning to the receiving dock empty-handed.
If a person is in mid-warehouse, and a drop needs to be made one aisle over, the terminal on the forklift directs the operator to the closer assignment, he explained.
The network also tells pickers if they are in the wrong slot or the wrong bay, thereby effecting the substantial improvement in accuracy.
Minyard's is also looking into installing a voice-activated picking system, although the chain has not yet come to any conclusive agreement, Pineda told SN. For this system, he, too, is targeting accuracy. He has heard reports of DCs achieving 98% and 99% accuracy factors in their selection upon adopting voice-enabled picking systems. One of the ostensible advantages to this type of picking system -- and to mobile and wireless communication in general -- is the elimination of paper labels.
Pineda said Minyard's is currently grappling with the question of what will happen to all the information contained on those labels that tells retail employees exactly what is in any given case.
Before implementing the system at KVAT, store personnel were asked about the true merit of paper labels, Widener told SN. Quite simply, they said the labels ensure they've got the right case. Retail managers were told that the proposed system would practically eliminate the possibility of selection errors.
"If we can drive selection error so low, do you really need those pick strips?" Widener asked.
He said the answer was "no."
However, Widener acknowledged that this solution is not one-size-fits-all. Some chains with fewer advanced, electronic point-of-sale operations may still retain invoice numbers and pricing information on the label, and need to figure out a system that works for them.
Pineda said he looks forward to someday going completely paperless, and fully intends to move in that direction as Minyard looks ahead.
Considering the tenuous economic climate, some industry observers consider this a wise move.
As companies turn their attention toward cost-cutting, managing the supply chain via mobile and wireless becomes a practical priority.
"In the current economy, more people are concerned with reduced costs and increased efficiencies, more so than the top end," Dube said. "That's where the game is at right now."