Sunsweet Growers Improves Efficiency With Wireless Warehouse Management Solution

By  Susan Nunziata — June 16, 2008

When Sunsweet Growers, Yuba City, Calif., made the decision to push its SAP warehouse management solution to wireless devices, its main goals were:

Improving accuracy

Creating more visibility to inventory throughout the facility

Realizing new efficiencies in shipping, receiving and production put-away.

Sunsweet Growers manufactures dried fruit and juice products, which it distributes worldwide. Since 2000, it has been using an SAP ERP system for tracking finished goods, but needed a way to further pinpoint their whereabouts in storage locations throughout its campus.

"We were using a very heavy paper process, where there was a lot of room for error," says LaMont Feske, director of shipping & receiving.

The company worked with Motorola and RedLine Solutions to integrate the SAP warehouse management module with handheld and forklift-mounted mobile computers via a wireless LAN (WLAN). The WLAN was also used for corporate laptops in the company's headquarters, located on the campus.

"[RedLine] did the site survey for us," says Feske, noting that the company tested communications between warehouses and throughout the campus.

Sunsweet spent about a year preparing for the deployment. "We had to get the groups here together with the different departments," he says. "We learned early on that no matter what module or part of SAP -- or any kind of operating system -- that we are implementing, one end's going to affect the other. We've learned to make sure that we bring in all departments. We get their feedback, we provide demonstrations, we go through the testing to where no one gets surprised when it comes time go to live."
 
The deployment, which went live in August 2007, includes:
  • Approximately 40-45 Motorola VC5090 vehicle-mounted mobile computers
  • About 10-15 Motorola MC9030 mobile computers
  • Motorola LS3408-ER extended-range barcode scanners
  • Motorola WS5100 wireless switches
  • Motorola AP300 access points
  • D-Link DES 1228P switches to power access points throughout the WLAN

About 100 employees are using the system, including forklift drivers, quality-control personnel and supervisors.

The SAP warehouse management solution required some customization to be optimized for users on the warehouse floor, notes Feske. "We had to go through and create a lot of custom screens for what were the standard screens that are provided by SAP," he says. "We have a very outstanding I.T./I.S. group here at Sunsweet. We looked at the standard screens that were available and we determined what was really too much for the drivers to handle."

The team evaluated where there was too much information or too many screens to complete a process, consulting with forklift drivers and other warehouse employees throughout the process. The options were pared down so that with each shipment order drivers are seeing a product description, the location of the product, and the quantity that's on the pallet they're looking for. "It's very specific, to where they're not having to search for the product."

The system is integrated in real time to the central inventory database, so supervisors can track the movement of each pallet and quickly correct any variances. "We can go in and find out exactly which driver was working on which transfer order, what their progress is in the transfer order," says Feske. "We can see how long it's taken us from one pallet to the next pallet, where they're pulling the pallets from. When the pallet is scanned off the production line, or put away into the warehouse, it is tagged with a time that allows the production supervisors and the director of manufacturing up there to see what's going on with the line."

The company evaluated several devices before choosing the Motorola units, notes Feske. "We have cold storage, we have freezer storage," he says. "The handhelds and forklift computers have to withstand going in and out of those areas without affecting the hardware." Dependability and service were also key deciding factors, he adds.

Other issues include a manufacturing process that generates a lot of steam, meaning that the devices needed to withstand a humid environment.

The extended-range barcode scanners were also key, because some forklift drivers are scanning labels that are 20-30 feet up or 20-30 feet back on a shelf.

Results
Overall, the wireless solution has saved the company about 10% in labor, but in certain areas the labor savings has been even greater than that. "In terms of loading trucks, we've realized probably about 20% decrease in the time it takes to load," says Feske. Under the old paper-based process, drivers had to fill out loading charts by hand.

"Everything was documented," says Feske. "We batch-manage everything, so it's got to be item, batch, and quantity for each item that's gone into a load. You can see where that would consume a lot of time. With the barcode scanning, you scan the pallet, load it in the truck, and you're set to go. When you're loading something, you've got two screens. The first one is for collecting information on the product, the truck it's loading into, the door number -- it gives us verification for everything. It reduces the time it takes to load and unload."

Feske says Sunsweet has also realized improved accuracy in production put-away. "In a manual process, when they're putting pallets away off the production line, they're having to track everything by hand. They actually keep a tick-count on the pallets that are put away, and they've got to go back to and verify. If there's a count variance at the end of the shift for any particular line, they've got to go back through and research where the variance is. Now, they scan the pallet coming off the production line and it goes right into the warehouse. There's really no variance that comes with that. All the information is right there in front of you. That saved us a lot of time."

Sunsweet had estimated achieving ROI in two years after the deployment, but says ROI was actually achieved in the first nine months.

Next Steps
Sunsweet is now preparing to bring the same system to its Fleetwood, Penn. operation, which produces juices but not dried fruits. That system is expected to go live within two or three months, says Feske.

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