3 Invisible Forces Blocking Efficient Material Handling

Growing up I had this recurring dream, where I’m trying to climb the basement stairs at home, but I can’t quite reach the top, as there is this invisible force holding me back – creepy! What was holding me back? And, why couldn’t I see it? Though I may never truly understand the meaning behind my dream, the idea of invisible or unknown forces impacting manufacturing operations is not new. When it comes to efficient material handling, specifically, numerous companies have experienced this sort of dream as reality.

A Common Data Collection Misconception

In manufacturing operations, we are all trying to reach that next step in efficiency and process gains, but there are forces we might not see that can hold us back. Most companies have been using RF Data Collection for decades, but could it be that your current solution is the Great Invisible Oz behind the curtain holding you back? Data Collection after all is nothing more than barcode scanning and real-time data capture, and that enables increased transaction accuracy, right?

Yes, but that’s not all it can be, nor is that all it enables. Even though we are electronically capturing data, are we also electronically directing?

Visual, Verbal, Paper based communications to direct material handlers on what to pick and where to put material away, is the hallmark of the first invisible force. Are you using Excel spreadsheets to schedule production? Are your shipping schedule picklists printed? Are your material handlers visually checking work cell locations if they require more materials? If your answer to these questions are ‘Yes’, perhaps your system applications aren’t set up to handle a digital-forward approach – which could be fueling the following forces.

Lack of Full System Integration

If your Data Collection solution is not providing digital based pick/pack/putaway instructions, then it’s not integrated with your production scheduling and logistics system. Having a lack of full system integration can create an invisible force that negatively impacts material handling efficiency. In a recent QAD webinar — Materials Management Best Practices During a Labor Shortage — we illustrate a case study demonstrating how an integrated production scheduling system enables digitally directed material putaway and production material replenishment.

The primary value-add of material handlers is to unpack, move and pack materials. The “data collection / capturing of data” aspect of the receiving, move, pick/pack processes, is that value add or is it overhead?

A Life Sciences customer once told me, “I need to know in terms of minutes of accuracy, how long this material has been outside of cold storage to identify spoilage. Barcode scanning is essential to gather this information accurately – the more data collected the better.” On the other hand, an Automotive parts manufacturer told me, “Every data entry keystroke required by my users is time away from the operational activities I need them for.” What I took away from these customers is that the value-add of collecting data can make the difference between spoiled or sellable products, while at the same time must be accomplished in the most streamlined manner.

Lack of Automation

This brings us to the second invisible force – having a lack of automation. We don’t have our material handlers so they can be data entry clerks, but on the other hand, collecting inventory transactions is critical for inventory control and traceability. If we could get to a “single scan” receipt or two-scan transfer, over the course of hundreds of transactions a day, how much time could be saved, and how many errors could be avoided?

In the case of the traceability of temperature sensitive material, for example, we could eliminate the barcode scan through RFID automation. Having a technology and systems framework, such as QAD Automation Solutions, that allows you to “automate” aspects of the data collection processes through external technologies like RFID, temperature monitors and motion sensors is vital.

Lack of System to Process Alignment

The greatest invisible force is having a lack of system to process alignment. When you train your employees on using your Data Collection system, it might go something like this: “To prepare for a customer shipment to pick/pack/print labels, you first go to this screen option 1, then you go to that screen option 2, and then that one, but only that one in case of XYZ, and when you finished all of that you go that that option to print your labels.” Doesn’t that sound like a process workflow of a back office ERP system?

To achieve peak material handling efficiency, you need to have the ability to align the system to the process, versus aligning the process to the system. This was the case with Hendrickson, a global manufacturer and supplier for the commercial transportation industry. Hendrickson were able to achieve a 40% improvement in material handler efficiency with reduced wait times at both shipping and work centers. They also saw a 30% improvement in shipment packer efficiency and 60% improvement in material handler efficiency.

For most legacy Data Collection solutions today, if some process automation and alignment is achieved, it’s through expensive, hardcoded customizations. Each time you want to change or further automate, it becomes more expensive and more rigid, to a point where it becomes a barrier to achieving anything more. Material Handling solutions that are bent through hardcoding is yet another hidden force holding you back.

Achieving Efficient Material Handling “at the Top of the Stairs

With your current Data Collection solution, where are you on your stairs?

  • At the bottom, having limited system integration to provide digital, paperless task instruction?

  • A few steps up, but still lacking the desired level of data collection automation offsets?

  • Midway up or higher, but the system forces an artificial or rigid physical material process flow that you hope to change?

Wherever you are on your efficiency journey, QAD is here to help you move past the invisible forces. You can learn more from our webinar — Materials Management Best Practices During a Labor Shortage — or contact us directly for more information.

Contributed by Brent Shooltz

Brent Shooltz started his career early, working throughout his college years at a Tier-1 automotive supplier, performing procurement and engineering functions. Joining QAD, he has worked in Customer Account Management, Global Support Services, Automotive Development Group, and currently is a Product Manager for R&D Manufacturing – focusing on Automation Solutions. He has provided services ranging from full implementation project management support to trouble-shooting and business process analysis at more than 100 customer sites. Shooltz specializes in distribution, planning and manufacturing execution. He has a bachelor's degree in Integrated Supply Chain Management from Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI. He is certified in Supply Chain Management (CSCP) and Production and Inventory Control Management (CPIM).

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