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Handheld Database Application and Bar Code Scanning Improves Warehouse Management

Integrating bar code scanning with warehouse management software allows rapid gains in storage efficiency

Handheld database application and bar code scanning improves warehouse management
Handheld database application and bar code scanning improves warehouse management

Many companies pay for much more storage space than they really need. However, determining how much warehouse space is actually needed and how to use it most efficiently, can be very complex. The type of material being stored, the amount of inventory that must be kept on hand, and the speed with which it ships are all factors that have to be considered when determining true space requirements.

Morgan Integrated Technologies (MIT), a systems integrator and consultant for the distribution and material handling industry, has developed a rapid, accurate technique to optimize inventory space as well as the storage devices being used. The approach allows a typical warehouse with a utilized cubic efficiency of 20-30% to achieve utilized density rates of 80-90% by intelligently allocating parts to the most efficient location within a given storage device. As a result, a company may find that it requires far less warehouse space than what it is currently leasing.

Using bar code scanning together with its warehouse management software, MIT is able to complete an inventory analysis project within a few days to a week - a fraction of the time required by most other methods used to determine storage requirements. Handheld PCs equipped with build-in scanners are used to quickly build an inventory database. The warehouse management software then goes to work on the database to calculate how much space is needed for each part and where to put it, based on storage rules and formulas designed to store inventory with maximum efficiency. MIT also works with its clients to select the most appropriate storage devices and containers to fit their storage requirements. When the process is complete, clients have a reconfigured inventory that not only occupies minimal space, but also is stored in the most effective way to meet traffic demands.

Scanning Applications without Programming
As MIT has discovered, handheld PCs can provide an effective complement to existing applications and processes, with bar code scanning allowing a dramatic leap in productivity. Creating the handheld application, and integrating it with current desktop programs, was performed utilizing Visual CE® software from SYWARE ( Visual CE works with any Windows CE device and allows non-programmers to quickly create customized databases and forms using an intuitive, drag-and-drop design. The software works with handheld PCs equipped with scanning devices, where information captured from the bar code appears as input fields within a form on the screen.

"The advantages of Visual CE are speed and ease of use," explains Erik Radtke, systems integrator and developer of the solution. "There's no need for coding, and everything can be easily done on the fly to customize a form in a few minutes."

Since Radtke's programming knowledge is limited, he was looking for a fast and efficient way to create applications. "We searched the Internet to find something that would work for us. We stumbled on SYWARE's web site, evaluated their software, and decided to purchase it." Radtke spent about a week tinkering with the application until he was happy with it. For each new client, he modifies the template used to create the handheld form, a process that only takes five to ten minutes with Visual CE.

Squeezing the Air Out of a Building
Traditionally, when assigning inventory to warehouse space, warehouse staff would simply slap a part number on the front of a shelf, place a quantity of parts in the shelf, and that would be the end of the process. This approach is both archaic and highly inefficient - typically there is a lot of shelf air surrounding the product.

MIT uses its expertise and software to perform a velocity and cube analysis that allocates only the space absolutely necessary to store a product, based on the quantity and the size of that given SKU. "In essence, we're squeezing those shelves together and squeezing that product together," explains Radtke. "This application allows us to squeeze the air out of a building."

Clients provide MIT with a spreadsheet containing critical information about each SKU including part number, description, and velocity (how fast the product normally ships). Radtke uses this inventory report to populate a database on the Windows CE handheld device which links to the form that will be displayed on the handhelds. MIT also uses the spreadsheet data to print bar code labels representing each part. The bar code labels are sent to the client, who applies the labels on each SKU prior to the analyst arriving on site.

During the initial stage of the project, MIT also works with clients to determine the best choice of storage device. These could include carousals, vertical lift systems, or whatever approach is most appropriate and efficient to store the customer's inventory.

The field analysts then go on site to the client warehouse to build the inventory database using the Visual CE program with bar code scanning. MIT uses an Intermec 5020 handheld, which is an industrial strength, Windows CE data collection device with a built-in wedge scanner.

After scanning a bar code, the handheld form displays the corresponding part, with descriptions, movement, and several other variables based on data received from the client. Drop-down menus provide choices of various storage options. A note option allows analysts to indicate any discrepancies.

Building an Optimized Storage System
The first time a part is scanned, the analyst determines the appropriate type of container for the part. The company has its own boxes that they sell to the clients. Each container and its dimensions are stored in the database and can be accessed via a drop-down menu on the form. The field analysts are provided with templates corresponding to different size containers. Using the predefined templates, analysts match the part to the appropriate container.

The effect is to build a grid of cells with each template occupying a certain number of cells in a three-dimensional grid - width, depth, and height. The company can also create custom containers for special requirements. For example, miniature, delicate electronic components may require smaller boxes and tiny storage cells, while industrial applications may require heavy duty containers and over-sized cells.

After the analyst answers all the prompts, the SKU record is saved to the Microsoft Pocket Access database on the handheld. Each time the part in the future, the fields are filled in automatically. "We have a refined database built on the fly without mistakes," adds Radtke.

After analysts collect all the information, they bring back their handhelds back to the MIT office. The contents of the handheld database are copied into a Microsoft Access database on a desktop computer for use by the warehouse management software. Now the warehouse management software applies the storage rules to the inventory database to maximize use of available space within each storage device and to reallocate parts to the most efficient location within the facility.

The storage rules take into account how many of each type of container will fit into a particular storage device, limits on how many units can be kept on hand, and other formulas that optimize how inventory is stored. The program then generates instructions telling warehouse personnel how to reallocate the inventory. After completing the inventory moves, the software provides ongoing control of the warehouse as new inventory is brought into the system.

Faster Timeframes, Accurate Results
Before developing the handheld application, the previous method was both time-consuming and error-prone. MIT analysts would take sheets printed from an Excel spreadsheet of the client's parts database - hundreds or even thousands of sheets representing individual SKUs. Analysts would visit each part number in the warehouse with a clipboard and ruler. They would then bring the sheets back to the office, where the information would be converted to a database and operated on using the warehouse management software.

The new program eliminates the manual data entry associated with processing the paper forms in order to generate the database. "The Visual CE application eliminates a week to ten days out of our total project timeline. Obviously that's a cost benefit to us and to the customer. But just as important is the accuracy - by eliminating manual steps, we've eliminated the potential for mistakes, which is a critical component for a successful project."

Using handheld application with its warehouse management software, MIT is able to reconfigure a warehouse in about three days to a week - a fraction of the time required by other providers. "We fly in and out, and their warehouse system is ready to go," says Radtke. "The ability to perform the analysis very quickly, with unique results, has given us a value-added selling tool rivaled by no one in our business."

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