SAN DIEGO -- H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, will upgrade radio frequency computers used by warehouse order selectors this spring in a move that will bring it one step closer to a paperless supply chain.
Selectors are now using portable RF devices, which eliminate the need for paper invoices and work assignments, but the new models may enable them to perform more diverse inventory tasks.
Through several warehouse-based initiatives, including the use of RF technology, H-E-B has boosted order accuracy to 99.95%. The chain now records only five order errors per 10,000 cases audited, whereas two years ago it had an average of 40 errors per 10,000 cases, said Kenneth Allen, vice president of distribution and manufacturing.
The retailer hopes the new model portable computers, from Symbol Technologies, Bohemia, N.Y., will lead to the automation of paper-based functions like inventory manage-
ment. The new selector unit consists of a personal computer worn as a backpack, a small monitor worn on the wrist and a bar-code scanner worn on one finger. The device is less cumbersome than H-E-B's previous model and weighs little more than a half-pound; the earlier model weighed about 2 pounds.
The system's expanded memory will enable selectors to perform inventory control functions by mid-1997, Allen said.
"When a selector is selecting a pick slot, our system could prompt the selector at that point to do a quick inventory if that pick slot has not been [checked] in the last three weeks," he said.
The monitor screen will prompt a question such as "How many cases are in the slot?" Allen said. "The selector enters 'two' and if that's different from what it should be, the system would then update our inventory control screens," he said.
Allen, speaking at the Food Marketing Institute's Distribution Conference here, said selector computer units now directly interface with software monitored by warehouse supervisors. The result is real-time selector performance analysis and access to current inventories and orders.
The number of shortage claims from H-E-B stores has been slashed. "Our stores were running massive shrink reduction programs and they filed huge claims for [order] shortages as one of the ways to reduce shrink," Allen said.
"We continue to have stores claim shortages now but these claims are insignificant" compared with those recorded before using the selector computers, he said. "Some retail divisions have dropped the claims process altogether; they'll allow no one to file a shortage or damaged claim from our Houston division."
Employee productivity has been further enhanced by eliminating paper assignment sheets. "In our larger warehouses it took an hour from the time the work assignments were created before we got them all printed, the [pallet] labels sorted, and were ready to begin selection," Allen said.
RF technology also plays a major role at the retail store level, he said. Stores can now receive invoices via electronic data interchange as soon as selection is completed and can learn of any out-of-stock situations.
"At delivery time, stores can scan the pallets as they are unloaded," Allen said. By scanning pallet bar codes, stores can "verify they have all the pallets they were due and that they don't unload pallets that were destined for another store."
Selector names are printed on pallet bar codes, creating more employee accountability. "If a store detects a problem in cube A, they now have [the selector's] name," he said. "They can call back the warehouse and say 'May I speak to Ken Allen, the guy who selected my order? There are eight cases missing.' "
Not all of H-E-B's warehouse technology initiatives have panned out successfully, Allen acknowledged.
In particular, the retailer recently decided to abort an initiative that integrated forklifts with computerized scales. The technology did not present enough of a payback to justify a rollout, he said.
"We attempted to interface a scale system into our pallet jacks," Allen said. Sizes and weights of upcoming orders were downloaded into the scale via RF, thus informing the scale exactly how much weight should be added to an existing load.
"If the scale detected a variance of greater than one-half of a pound, it would reject that selection as being inaccurate," he added.
After a pilot test, however, H-E-B decided to scrap the project. "The system was not successful primarily because the time it took to let the scales detect the added load and to update [the host] computer system took 1.5 seconds," Allen said. "That proved to be too costly in [selector] time.
"The scale system also cost about $4,000 per pallet jack," he added. "We had 0.5 errors per 1,000 cases shipped and we just determined the cost of both the slowdown due to the system and the scale itself was too costly."