If the forklift is a warehouse's lifeblood, then technologies such as onboard microcomputers and radio frequency devices are at the heart of what's pumping it at top efficiency.
Stand-alone RF devices mounted on forklifts are "talking" with computer mainframes and delivering on-line inventory control capabilities. Armed with such "just in time" data, these devices are guiding equipment operators' moves to maximize efficiency in product picking, sorting and put-away tasks, retailers told SN.
At Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., radio frequency-equipped forklifts are proving themselves big time, said George Williams, vice president of distribution.
The wholesaler's grocery warehouse and the perishables distribution center are operating on such equipment, and the general merchandise and health and beauty care facility is next in line for the upgrade, he said. That will bring the entire 1.1 million-square-foot operation on line with the computer mainframe.
"It's made us more efficient because now we're able to make moves in both directions rather than having operators driving around with empty forklifts, waiting for their next assignment," Williams explained. "We can automatically give them an assignment when they're finished" with a given task.
Williams said Spartan has seen labor savings with the RF-equipped trucks. They also have resulted in improved productivity and "drastically" reduced warehouse out-of-stocks.
Mark Ortenburger, director of distribution operations at Supervalu, Minneapolis, agreed that radio frequency technology goes a long way toward saving time and eliminating wasted moves in the distribution center. He said the company uses such devices on forklifts at most divisions.
"The technology allows you to have a real-time system, where you can locate your inventory immediately, rather than wait for a turnaround time of 12 to 24 hours," he said. "If you give the forklift operators the ability to locate inventory more accurately and more quickly, you give them a better chance of getting the replenishment activity done to support the order selector activity."
Echoing Ortenburger's demand for inventory accuracy was Mike Bargmann, director of warehousing and distribution at Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y.
"This whole process of radio frequency, in my opinion, is about inventory accuracy," he said. Since Wegmans began testing the technology 18 months ago, accuracy has improved "dramatically," Bargmann added. Wegmans recently began installing RF devices on its forklifts in its 400,000-square-foot grocery warehouse.
Looking ahead to this fall, Wegmans plans to equip its grocery receivers with their own handheld devices, thereby making products available immediately upon hitting the dock. "All this time, product was available to our stores, but nobody knew it because we weren't updating our information," Bargmann said.
At Richfood, Mechanicsville, Va., Gary Conrad, vice president for distribution, said on-line inventory control systems have helped the warehouse operation shave 12 hours off turnaround time.
Instead of forklift operators writing down "what they put where," and someone else keying it into a computer later on, that data is entered immediately through a device on the truck.
The precision afforded by on-line-directed put-away has enabled Richfood to make best use of the 1.3 million square feet available in its warehouse, which the company otherwise would have outgrown long ago.
"The on-line-directed put-away system monitors the number of inches available in each pallet position and then places pallets within the racking structure for the height of the pallet and matches it up to available inches in the warehouse," Conrad said.
"We ship a million and a half cases a week through this facility," he added. "We could not begin to store enough inventory without the combination of the racking structures that we put up, and the directed put-away."
New racking structures already in grocery, meat and dairy -- and this week, to be installed in the freezer facility -- are serviced by new-generation, double-reach lift-trucks, Conrad said.
The double-reach lift-trucks, he said, reach in two pallet positions deep, which is particularly productive for high-volume items. "Equally as well, it will go high enough to set a pallet off 28 feet."
The ability of the forklifts to reach high and deep into Richfood's new racking structure enabled the company essentially to double its space utilization and virtually eliminate floor-stack situations, he said. "The exciting piece for us is we know we can continue to grow in this facility," he said. But forklifts are not only working harder, they're working smarter. Self-diagnostic capabilities available on some forklifts are designed to increase the life of the investment.
Such functions go beyond "low battery charge" idiot lights, said one industry observer. Some trucks perform a general systems check upon start-up, while others monitor ongoing operations and take corrective measures as needed. For example, if an operator attempts to move a load beyond the designated capacity or take a turn too fast, the truck may temporarily shut itself down.
Orchestrated by an internal, onboard microcomputer, the diagnostic capability dovetails with a generous fault memory function that records both operator and equipment missteps for analysis and service later on.
Most executives interviewed by SN praised the improved ergonomic designs going into today's lift-trucks. Said Supervalu's Ortenburger, "The newer generation [of forklifts] they've come out with has certainly given some strong considerations to ergonomic issues regarding standing position and comfort, operation, the way handles are designed, those kinds of things. They've certainly done a better job. Ergonomics are becoming a more important issue by the day."
Wegmans' Bargmann mentioned he was somewhat surprised by one particular benefit of introducing radio frequency technology: a boost in staff morale.
"Our people have felt very good that they're interacting with the system. They used to write things down on a piece of paper and didn't know what happened with it. Now [radio frequency] has given them the chance to interact with a computer -- and that's changing their job perspective."