GARMENT DISTRIBUTION - MAINTAINING A COMPETITIVE EDGE
Bentwood is an operating company within Stirling Group PLC, a highly focused forward-thinking organisation with a well-earned international reputation for innovation and service excellence.
From their UK base and offices world-wide, the Group offers a full procurement and distribution service for an extensive range of merchandise that ranges from garments, textiles and fashion accessories to tableware, household goods, jewellery, toys and luxury items.
At the core of the Group's operations is an unrivalled global procurement capability. The Group has long-standing working relationships with the some of the worlds most innovative and cost effective manufacturers.
Bentwood, a major supplier of apparel to Marks and Spencer Plc, distributes its products from a
750,000 square foot warehouse site in Altrincham, Cheshire. Management of the unit is underpinned by a computer based warehouse management system (Xe-WMS) from XeBusiness Ltd; a Manchester based business software vendor.
With the help of Xe-WMS, the warehouse processes approximately 1 million garments a week, with a mix of hanging and boxed goods.
As a major supplier to Marks and Spencer Plc, the company operates within tight accuracy and replenishment response targets. The customer uses distribution efficiency as a performance indicator when assessing supplier performance. Penalties are levied if pre-set performance targets are not achieved.
In order to improve delivery performance, minimise and possibly even eliminate the potential for incurring penalties, a state-of-the art Radio Frequency bar-coded scanning sub-system was introduced into Xe-WMS in late 2000 to ensure required levels of accuracy and speed of response were achieved.
With very high volumes of merchandise processed daily, the element of human error had to be reduced.
Prior to the incorporation of this innovative functionality in Xe-WMS, the system was reliant upon semi-manual warehouse operator counts to confirm delivery receipt and pick quantities. With increasingly high volumes of merchandise being processed, human error significantly compromised accuracy.
XeBusiness consultants worked closely with Bentwood Business Systems Manager, Vince Sparks, to develop and then incorporate RF scanning functionality into Xe-WMS covering the stock receipt, putaway and despatch functions. It was important that the system was layered on top of existing processes so that implementation could be achieved with minimal disruption to operations.
Hand -held RF scanners and signal access points (radio receivers which pick up transmissions from the scanners and pass data on to the database) were closely coupled with Xe-WMS.
The scanning software and hardware had to be simple to use so that warehouse operatives could be quickly trained. The software was therefore developed to ensure that operatives are guided through the processes by clear screen prompts whilst retaining the flexibility to correct errors on-line and return to prior points in the cycle as necessary.
New warehouse operatives can be trained to use basic scanner functions within an hour. This is then followed by on the job training developed to demonstrate how the scanning function integrates into the receiving, put away, picking and despatch functions.
Stock picks are scanned using hand held RF scanners to ensure accurate consignments are delivered to customers speedily.
In a similar manner, goods received into the warehouse are scanned to verify receipts that are then automatically validated against supplier despatch documents to ensure putaway accuracy.
Orders are received via EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) on a daily basis and automatically imported into Xe-WMS. Further functionality was incorporated into the system to allow pick creation algorithms to automatically create picking sheets in the relevant order to streamline the process and reduce the time involved in order preparation.
From a commercial perspective the project was viewed as having an element of risk as this type of technology had not been deployed within Bentwood before. The amount of scanning equipment and staffing required was initially estimated, as no benchmarks were available for the new method of operation.
As with any automation project, the user plays a key role in determining the success of the roll out and the Bentwoods implementation team ensured the change from their existing processes and methods of working was effectively managed, with particular attention paid to internal training and staff orientation.
The rationale for the new bar coded scanning system was presented to all warehouse staff to gain acceptance and commitment to the project. As most of the warehouse operatives were already familiar with the previous version of Xe-WMS that utilised batch based scanning, conversion to the new system was relatively painless even taking into account the scale of the change from the old to the new system.
A quote from Vince Sparks is appropriate in summarising the outcome of the project:
"The end result was an excellent piece of software, which provided the correct balance of control and flexibility. Jobs can be started, stopped, shared between other scanners. Summary reports and screens keep operatives up dated on job progress. The design of the software makes it difficult for operatives to get things wrong important when accuracy is the objective."
The equipment deployed in the first phase of the project was sufficient to provide coverage for approximately 40% of all stock movements in and out of the warehouse.
The statistical evidence just over a year on following implementation indicates the following conclusions:
The pilot scheme has demonstrated a ROI/Pay Back of less than 12 months.
With the benefits of RF bar code scanning now proven, the system will be extended to provide complete coverage throughout the warehouse for all merchandise handling functions.