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Going Mobile: Next-Generation Materials Management

By: Adam Grabowski

Adam Grabowski is director of marketing and communications for Global Shop Solutions, The Woodlands, TX: 888/851-1248, www.globalshopsolutions.com.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014
 

During the past few decades, ongoing technological innovation–including ERP software–has enabled manufacturers to lean their production processes and compete more effectively in global markets. For many companies, however, materials management remains a slow, inefficient process rife with human error and mostly driven by historical rather than real-time data.

using barcode technology, a user can enter data faster and more accurately than using manual methods.
By using barcode technology, a user can enter data faster and more accurately than using manual methods. Wireless barcode scanners in particular will help manufacturers increase productivity and efficiency.
Consider inventory management, where ERP software has streamlined the inventory-tracking process to a large degree by moving it from a paper file folder to a digital database. But if your inventory isn’t next to the computer, you still have to write it down on a piece of paper, walk over to the computer and manually enter the data into the system. This takes time and opens the door to the mistakes that inevitably occur with hand-written data. And unless you shut down operations every time you count a piece of inventory or conduct a bin-to-bin transfer, the data always lags one step behind what’s actually happening on the shop floor.

With the development of mobile technologies, materials management has entered the 21st century. By integrating barcode-scanning technology, handheld printing and mobile-device technologies, ERP software has redefined the way companies perform materials management. From physical inventory to shipments, purchase-order receipts, inventory transfers and more, mobile materials management (M3) gives manufacturers unprecedented levels of speed, visibility and control.

Imagine knowing where every piece of raw material resides in your plant, and being able to locate it instantly. Envision moving inventory from one bin to another while accurately documenting the entire transaction right there on the shop floor in real time, or printing move tickets anywhere on the shop floor as you assign and pull parts to work in progress (WIP). With M3 all of these activities are quickly and easily accomplished, and then wirelessly recorded and managed in the ERP system to ensure data accuracy and integrity.

Barcoding on Steroids

Lean materials management starts with barcoding incoming parts and raw materials, as well as all types of inventory. M3 puts new muscle into the barcoding process by transforming it from a stationary to a mobile activity, allowing companies to streamline material transactions, improve inventory accuracy and take faster physical inventory and cycle counts.

barcode-scanning technology, handheld printing and mobile-device technologies, ERP software
By integrating barcode-scanning technology, handheld printing and mobile-device technologies, ERP software has redefined the way companies perform materials management. From physical inventory to shipments, purchase order receipts, inventory transfers and more, mobile materials management gives manufacturers unprecedented levels of speed, visibility and control.
Whether receiving incoming raw materials, counting inventory in the warehouse or transferring parts on the shop floor, the person handling the material simply scans the barcoded label and the mobile system records the transaction. Not only does this eliminate the data-entry errors that occur when tracking barcoded labels by hand, it also produces real-time transactional labels that quicken the materials-management process.

For example, with configured options a manufacturer can automatically receive parts into the inventory-default or stocking bin. There, an operator scans the label and the data instantly goes on the Inventory Master. For lightning-fast bin-to-bin transfers, scan the barcode label on the bin where you pull the part, scan again when the part goes into a different bin and you’re done.

M3 also lets workers issue material at the point of picking for a work order, enabling material handlers to process transactions and update inventory and WIP in real time. Employees can scan the material sequence on the work order, which greatly reduces the number of clicks and screens required to issue material from raw material inventory to WIP. They also can label materials picked to WIP by printing a transactional issue-to-work order label.

Case History: Barcoded Purchase Orders

Take the case of Fast Manufacturing, a family-owned producer of liquid-fertilizer applicator and sprayer products in Mountain Lake, MN. At one time, the company would manually receive and inventory all purchased parts. Now using M3, when those parts come through the door employees scan the barcoded purchase orders to automatically receive the materials into inventory.

can count entire inventory because we barcode all raw materials, hardware and finished goods
“Now that we barcode all raw materials, hardware and finished goods and use wireless scanners, we can count our entire inventory in about 4 hr. using only eight people,” says Hawkeye Industries CEO Bryan Hawkins. “That’s what I call real process improvement.”
Wireless scanning also has streamlined the firm’s bin-to-bin transfer process, which used to require a hand-written report indicating when and where to move parts. Now workers wirelessly scan the parts right on the floor, improving the accuracy of the transfers and the accountability of those involved in the transaction.

“Our head of receiving really likes M3,” says company CFO and second-generation family member Cody Fast. “Her team scans inventory items straight from the purchase order, the system automatically receives the parts and it prints out the barcode labels on the spot. It’s fast, efficient and provides excellent traceability of the parts.”

Doing More with Mobile

When properly deployed, M3 transforms the materials-tracking process in many ways.

• Mobile tool tracking—M3 streamlines the tool-tracking process through wireless receipt of purchase orders in the toolroom and bin transfers to tool vending machines. Simply scan the employee, job, part and tool and you’re good to go. It also facilitates the direct dispensing and storage of materials from vending machines.

• Finished-goods tracking—From the point of finished production until you document a completed part and pull it for shipment, M3 delivers unprecedented control over finished-goods inventory. Scan the label on the finished good as you transact each step of the process and the ERP system automatically records the data.

• Physical inventory—M3 produces fast, reliable count verifications and updates. Workers can run cycle counts in real time without having to temporarily stop production, make on-the-fly adjustments to part and lot-bin counts and print new barcode labels on the spot.

• Move tickets—Moving physical inventory around the shop floor is quick and easy with M3. Move tickets can be scanned into the mobile system and then printed with a portable label printer from anywhere on the shop floor.

• Shipping and staging—Shipping also is faster and more efficient with M3. Scanning and validating as you pull the product ensures that you ship the right product and quantity. And with handheld devices, you can print paperwork from anywhere in the plant.

Don’t Try This at Home

Going mobile might sound simple, since it doesn’t take much to get started—a wireless routing system, barcoding software, a few handheld scanners and some mobile printers. But Brady Stephens, mobile project manager for Global Shop Solutions, cautions against diving in headfirst without adequate preparation and planning.

“When we first started offering mobile to our customers we basically said, ‘Here’s the license, now go do it,’” Stephens says. “We ended up with a lot of frustrated customers who would end up going back to their old materials-tracking system. Now we assist customers with everything from selecting the hardware and designing the labels to training their employees on how to use mobile, and we get much better results.”

Why the change in approach?

Stephens agrees that the software and equipment required to go mobile aren’t overly complex or difficult to use. However, most manufacturing companies don’t have expertise in barcoding systems. And without the proper hardware, M3 can quickly turn from a giant step forward in materials management into a fruitless exercise.

To reap the full benefits of M3, Stephens recommends that companies work closely with their ERP vendor to plan, design and implement a mobile system. Vendor assistance should include selecting the right hardware, designing the barcode labels and recommending scanners, printers and other infrastructure that has been proven to work with the vendor’s ERP software.

For example, without a business-grade wireless system, workers may encounter dead spots throughout the shop floor that render the system useless in those areas. The scanners must be compatible with the vendor’s ERP software and the label printers must be able to print barcodes. So before investing any money in a mobile system, work with your ERP vendor to devise a complete solution that includes hardware and software setup and installation, as well as on-site training for employees.

Case Study: Measurable Process Improvement

M3 ultimately is all about streamlining the materials-management process without adding more people or resources. Using a wireless network, you can receive and issue materials, conduct bin-to-bin transfers and perform real-time inventory and cycle counts faster and more accurately from anywhere on the shop floor.

Consider the experience of Hawkeye Industries, a make-to-order sheetmetal fabricator in Tupelo, MS. When Hawkeye first implemented ERP software, it quickly gained more control over inventory levels, reduced over-purchasing and streamlined bin-to-bin transfers—all using traditional inventory-management techniques. But when the company upgraded to barcoding and mobile technologies, the time and cost savings increased exponentially.

“To keep on top of our large inventory, we conduct a full physical count every quarter,” says CEO Bryan Hawkins. “Previously, that process required 16 people working two days to complete. Now that we barcode all raw materials, hardware and finished goods and use wireless scanners, we can count our entire inventory in about 4 hr. using only eight people. That’s what I call real process improvement.” MF

 

See also: Global Shop Solutions

Related Enterprise Zones: Materials/Coatings, Software


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