How Did Eight Handhelds Revamp The Inventory Process For Blaney Hardwoods?

By  Susan Nunziata — June 30, 2008

Blaney Hardwoods, a saw mill in Barlow, Ohio, has been steadily growing since it launched in 1978. It provides a variety of hardwoods to clients of all sizes, from major corporations to local craftsmen.

In 1986 it installed its first set of kilns. Since then, two more were installed, giving the facility the capacity to dry half a million board feet. The facility also includes 60,000 square feet of warehouse space, as well as three air sheds and a fan wall that optimizes air flow around the lumber.
While the company had been using handhelds in its lumber yard for the past 10 years, the devices -- and the inventory management application they were running -- hadn't kept up with Blaney's growing capacity.

"We had different handhelds for different applications," says Jeanne Sheff, the company's VP of Sales & Marketing. "The handhelds were 10 years old, so it was a very dated technology. You could only do so much, and that was it, there were no options."

And when problems arose, the devices were so old that Sheff says she couldn't find anyone to repair them. "There were some cases where we went back to paper because we couldn't get the things repaired."

The desktop inventory management system Blaney was using was also long past its prime, and the software was failing, notes Sheff.

It was time for a complete overhaul.

"What I was trying to do was make it so I had one handheld that could do it all," says Sheff. "We have to track our product from raw material, which is logs, clear through to the end product."
The wood can be sold at different stages, for example as "green" or unprocessed logs or as kiln-dried lumber. The new system uses Honeywell Dolphin 9500 handheld computers and a software application designed specifically for the lumber industry called eLimbs, a division of IT Toolworks.
Every piece of wood gets a barcode, and the Honeywell handhelds are used by workers to scan the products at every stage of processing. "We use it to buy our raw material, we use it to scale every log that we have," says Sheff. "We use it to put loads together, and we'll use it to find out how much square footage is in that pack of lumber."

The barcoding and scanning cuts down dramatically on the hours spent doing physical inventory. Data is usually downloaded from the handhelds directly into the desktop system, although a wireless router on site allows data to be transmitted in real time.

"Information is downloaded from the handhelds almost exclusively in batch transactions," says Philip Coyner, President/CEO of eLimbs. "Some customers use wireless, but the information isn't so time sensitive that they need it in real-time."

Minimal training was needed to get yard workers up and running on the Dolphin handhelds. For the lumber yard crew, "It was hands-on training," says Sheff. "Within an hour or two of picking it up, most of them knew how to run it. They all liked the big screen on it, that they could see everything, and it had a touchscreen."

Employees also gave suggestions on how to make the system better, which IT Toolworks used to refine its software and user interfaces.

The real work for any deployment is in the process evaluation, notes Coyner. "We spend an enormous amount of time doing a full business process review before we even submit a bid," he says. "It's a lot of fun to sell, they're always like, 'Wow! I never thought of that!' "

Blaney has eight handhelds in use among six employees, notes Sheff.

With the old system, physical inventory used to take six employees two full days to complete. Today, inventory is completed by four employees in just two-and-a-half hours, amounting to a nearly 600% increase in time savings. 

Blaney also uses the mobile computers to digitally capture images of packages and customer signatures to eliminate paperwork; store permanent digital records; and digitally document and confirm deliveries and shipments.

"Doing loads used to take a guy an half hour to an hour to complete," says Sheff. "He could now do them in probably about 10 minutes."

Adds Coyner, "It's really about simplifying the process, putting the work in the yard where it's already being done.The real value is in that, and the spread of information, such as electronic billing and lading. There's a huge reduction in time between shipment and billing. As soon as they load the trucks, the driver signs on the handheld, it goes into the system and they can generate a bill in 10 minutes."

The system, which was deployed in 2004, achieved ROI within the first 12 months, says Sheff. Next steps are to evaluate a newer, smaller handheld, and extend the system beyond the yard to the company's staff of log buyers in the field. "I have log buyers who go out in remote locations, and just to be able to get their information a little faster, that would be a great help," says Sheff.

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