With the never-ending search by distributors for greater efficiencies and the technological advancements in wireless devices, RF bar-coding solutions are becoming increasingly popular.
On the whole, this is a great thing, but it’s not a plug and play process. There are some pitfalls and considerations to think about along the way.
No one questions that many advantages can be gained from better inventory control. There is no doubt automation techniques can help better manage inventory. What is often forgotten is that inventory control is still a discipline in the automated warehouse.
In fact it is a bigger discipline. If you don’t have discipline in inventory handling all the investment made in a barcode system will likely be under utilized. All automated systems break down without solid processes to support them and I think there are few better examples of this than a barcode warehouse system.
With all that said, I am not trying to discourage anyone from implementing a barcode solution for inventory handling. To the contrary, I encourage such a shift in the warehouse. But I am recommending you make a plan of attack for processes and do an implementation that promotes those processes. Ask yourself some questions.
Do you already do cycle counts?
Are you well disciplined in your cycle counts and in correcting bad inventory counts?
How disciplined are you in your receiving?
Are your inventory processes timely and accurate? Or do transactions now sit for a day or more before being completed?
If you don’t have decent inventory control now, your receiving may sit for an extended period without being logged in and ends up scavenged by stock people. If you don’t know what a cycle count is or why you would ever want to do one… then a barcode system is going to do less for you. It may even cease to function and end up as an expensive set of paperweights. In this case, there is no legitimate process to automate and a barcode system will not provide the discipline. The discipline must either exist first or be developed along with the system implementation. If your warehouse exists somewhere along the spectrum between borderline chaotic and down right obsessive compulsive then you will likely get the benefits from a barcode system correspondingly the closer to the obsessive end you find yourself now. But all is not lost for those unorganized types. Many times when a distributor is looking for a barcode system for their warehouse they are looking for greater discipline in inventory control.
They are seeking to move from one end of the spectrum to somewhere else along the spectrum they wish to be. Mistakenly, they think the technology is the solution. It’s a tool and a help but doing a better job is the solution.
With that said the BIGGEST of all pitfalls and number #1 on the list is:
Realize processes must change and that lack of process cannot be automated nor can you get a return on it
Once the decision has been made to automate processes or implement better processes the thought turns to vendors. Choose the vendor for your solution that you feel very comfortable helping you out.
This is less important the closer to the obsessive compulsive side your current practices are in that spectrum but is nonetheless always important. .The vendor’s ability and willingness to assist you in rolling this out is for most distributors very important in getting any sort of value.
Rarely in a bar-coding inventory control solution can a vendor offer a product and say ‘go to it’ with the warehouse having a successful implementation. Look at service levels and how much time the vendor is willing to spend in your warehouse on those hot August days helping you get this done.
Big pitfall #2 is:
Think about the support and installation services
It is very difficult to remotely handle this well. It will take a fair amount of time and most likely you will not see all that on the quote. It’s not hours or days, but weeks of time over an implementation period. Make sure the vendor hasn’t overlooked that this will take some of their time and that you need to budget for that. Many may not intend to provide it or they wish to leave this as a hidden cost.
Don’t let either happen. This is not a small cost in most cases. Be prepared to spend on services at least an equal amount if not a multiple of what you are investing in hardware.
Not realizing this and being prepared for it can mean a failure of the implementation. Again, the closer to that chaotic end of the spectrum your are the more you should be prepared to spend and the more important it is you choose a vendor that can be a part of the team and be an ally in your business. Choosing a vendor can sometimes be more important than the actual technology.
We all say business is about relationships. We all know that in distribution it seems especially true that business is about relationships up and down the supply chain. Technology is no different.
The technology the vendor has is important, but anymore it’s harder to go wrong with bad technology as long as it is reasonably current.
This brings me to Pitfall #3:
Don’t get caught up in surface level bells and whistles
Think about who will be using the vast majority of the functionality of the hardware. Probably the least trained, most transient, and under appreciated employees in the company. That person is the warehouse worker.
How many bells and whistles can they use and get their job done? How many do you want them using? Keep it simple. You’ll be better served by it. The simpler you can make it all seem and look and still get the job done is the best answer.
A handheld device is not the place for the user to be doing complex screen acrobatics trying to get around in the software. Look for screens on the handhelds that have the appropriate level of information and a minimal number of choices. Complexity is not a feature.
This leads into my last big pitfall. Do not to get ahead of yourself. Invariably, many people want to start with picking. It is understandable and definitely the most exciting part, if there is an exciting part. The warehouse must start with bar-code solutions just like any other process related to the physical inventory handling. It all starts when the item comes in the door. Begin with counts and receiving after you have found stronger processes and familiarity move to picking.
This is the last big pitfall on today’s list
You can’t start with picking
If anyone wants to sell you to start by picking a solution, or you wish to only purchase picking, or you wish to start with picking and the vendor will not effectively tell you that you can’t… your implementation is almost guaranteed to fail.
Are these all the pitfalls? No way. It doesn’t take lots of experience to come up with more pitfalls. And jokingly, but also very true is that any good CFO may be reluctant to spend money is invariably your best resource for potential issues of why it won’t work well for you now.
Today’s list are some areas you may not have thought about. I wish I could say it was easy, but it is not.. To be truthful it really is a little painful. But it can have great returns if done properly. Remember, the best way to do it properly is to expect to spend more on services than licenses and hardware. That’s the reality of the better solutions.
Michael Ruminer is a partner and technology “geek” for Expert Systems Consulting (ESC). He has spent the last few years trying to hurdle some of the pitfalls above and build bridges across them for electrical distribution clients and now does the same for a range of industries.
From about the time of widespread availability of computers in business he has been a man on mission to make them do what they promise and eventually moved into inventory systems about 10 years ago. He and his teammates at ESC have served extensively the plumbing, electrical, HVAC and grocery distribution industry