Shooting for success

Tuesday October 16, 2007
Written by Larry Sawyer and Gil Rodriguez
In the competitive automotive market, there is no room for error when it comes to product shipments. Materials are typically ordered "just in time," so any delay or errors can stop auto-plant production cold.

To ensure precise, correct shipments, an automotive paint and inks division of a large chemical manufacturer needed to optimize warehouse processing, eliminate picking errors and improve data collection accuracy. This also extended to product labeling. Each automotive client has strict guidelines for how each product must be labeled, and each auto company handles this in a different manner. To meet each unique customer need, the company required a way to create automated labels.

The manufacturer also sought to more effectively track shipment batches. Previously, it would manage materials as generic batches.

However, if a defect was uncovered that warranted a recall, the company had no way of telling which batches were affected and where those batches had been shipped to. The only effective way to recall the right items was to recall everything that had been shipped during a particular time frame. This meant the recalls were wider in scope than necessary.

To tackle these challenges, the paint and inks division looked for a solution provider who had a strong track record, along with a library of existing functionality it could leverage. This meant finding a vendor that had numerous existing process automation features that could be easily configured for its specific environment, instead of having to hand code new functionality. Ease of integration with SAP was also important.

However, the more closely the manufacturer integrated with SAP, the more reliant on SAP the company would be. This was a concern, since it operated in high-production mode, which required the ability to operate and collect data on the shop floor with 24-7 uptime. The company needed to protect the system against planned or unplanned SAP outages.

The company chose a data collection solution from Acsis Inc. The software's loose coupling with SAP means the production facility can continue to operate and meet schedule commitments even when SAP is down. If the SAP system is down, Acsis continues to accept transactions off the shop floor but replicates these locally. As soon as SAP is back up and running, this data is queued up and fed into SAP.

Solution
Acsis implemented an end-to-end automated data collection and process management solution that tracked all finished goods movement, integrated shop floor devices and uniquely integrated with SAP in real time. The system also included hand-held guns and fixed mounted barcode scanners. By using a readily configurable solution instead of a custom-coded one, the company was able to cut the development/deployment time in half. Instead of writing code for every interface, the firm capitalized on the rich functionality and user interfaces existing within the Acsis xDDI software platform.

The streamlined solution automated many shop floor activities to improve accuracy and productivity and eliminate human error. The company also replaced its existing process of manually inkjet spraying batch numbers onto their cases with a clean barcode label that included material and batch number information in barcode and text formats, as well as the material description. The Acsis application retrieves data from a production order, calculates the batch to a specified algorithm and integrates with applicators on each side of each line to print and apply material/batch barcode labels to each side of the cases. By establishing batch numbers for every production run, the company can now easily identify products to be picked for shipment, as well as any products impacted by a recall.

Once the products were barcode labelled, the company chose to leverage this capability by using mobile gun transactions to automate processing. This increased productivity by providing data collection through scans versus manual entry. Once a pick request is completed, the employee uses the Acsis system to validate that he or she is picking and shipping the correct items.

The company designed and implemented automated transactions for nearly every finished goods movement operation performed, including goods receipt of materials, bin-to-bin movements, production goods receipt and putways, physical inventory and cycle counts, picking cases for delivery onto pallets, and loading pallets onto trucks.

To simplify and automate warehouse processes with SAP, Acsis also implemented additional automation using fixed mount scanners.

At the production palletizers, the fixed mount scanners read the material/batch case tags and the pallet license plate barcode on each pallet as it leaves the palletizers. This information is formed to produce an automated goods receipt of every pallet out of production, with no human intervention. The operator simply drives up to pick up a pallet without having to get off the fork truck.

A second set of fixed mount scanners reside at the shipping rails. This automation provides the company with the ability to automatically generate shipping labels when the pallet is stretch wrapped. After picking cases on a delivery to a pallet, the operator drops the pallet onto the shipping rail. When the pallet tag is read by the fixed mount scanner, a lookup is performed of the license plate picked, gathering delivery and shipment information so that a complete shipping label can be applied at the end of the stretch wrap processing for each pallet.

Benefits
The company has achieved operational efficiency on numerous fronts.

First, the automation of data collection eliminates human errors in the picking, packing and shipping processes. Second, employees receive real-time guidance to ensure that they are performing the right activities

at the right time. They can see exactly where to locate items on the shop floor, eliminating paper trails, guesswork and the need to key information into SAP. The number of data entry screens in SAP can be monumental, but Acsis has collapsed these screens down so that all pertinent transaction data is streamlined into a single user interface. The seamless integration with SAP also means the company has access to a wealth of real-time data for planning and management.

For example, better insight into actual in-stock inventory enables the organization the confidence to operate with less inventory.

Creating and printing labels is completely automated. If there is a change in a customer's label requirements, it can be made in one place and propagated elsewhere to ensure the utmost accuracy. The company is also pleased with the ability to pinpoint batches that are impacted by product recalls, and could potentially save millions of dollars by only recalling the specific batches impacted versus all batches shipped out over a certain time period. These operational efficiencies gained provide the firm with a strong competitive edge and significant financial returns.

Larry Sawyer is vice-president of solutions engineering at Acsis Inc. Gil Rodriguez is vice-president of national accounts.

At a glance

CHALLENGE:
Acsis was tapped by a major division of a large chemical manufacturer to implement automated data collection technology that would increase supply chain productivity and efficiency, maximize warehouse capacity utilization, eliminate picking and shipping errors, streamline recall efforts and improve overall customer service.

SOLUTION:
• Shop floor integration platform: Acsis xDDI (extended platform for device and data integration)
• Devices: 50 handheld scanners, 10 fixed scanners and five applicators
• Number of transactions automated: 34
• Sample of finished goods transactions automated:
• Goods receipt of materials
• Bin-to-bin movements
• Production goods receipt
• Production goods putaway
• Cycle counts
• Picking cases onto pallets
• Loading pallets onto trucks
• Labelling:
• Centralized definition and management
• Automated data field population
• Distributed printing to multiple devices

BENEFITS:
• Reduced errors in the picking, packing and shipping processes;
• Employees receive real-time guidance to ensure that they are performing the right activities at the right time;
• Elimination of paper trails, guesswork and the need to key information into SAP;
• Pertinent transaction data is streamlined into a single user interface;
• Seamless integration with SAP;
• Automation of label creation and printing; and
• The ability to pinpoint batches that are impacted by product recalls.

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