It's not surprising that Brent Beabout, Office Depot's vice president of global network strategy and transportation, considers technology to be the driving force behind advances in supply chain management. What is surprising is the type of technology he's talking about.
A few months ago, Beabout told me that some of the most successful implementations he's seen have centered not on specialized logistics technologies, but on widely available devices that are popular with consumers. As a case in point, he cited a project in which his company "used straight off-the-shelf GPSs (global positioning systems) from Best Buy to enhance the functionality of [its] warehouse management systems."
I was still thinking about that when I came across the story of Markley Enterprises, a manufacturer of sales and marketing materials like in-store and trade-show displays. About 10 years ago, the company expanded its business to include warehousing and inventory management services for its customers. At first, it used a proprietary distribution system to manage these activities. When it became clear that the system no longer met the company's needs, Markley replaced it with an on-demand WMS.
Since implementing the software, the company has seen significant performance gains. Its inventory accuracy rate, for instance, now stands at over 99 percent, and the time needed to pick and pack an order has dropped by almost one-third.
But it wasn't the WMS alone that helped Markley Enterprises achieve these performance breakthroughs. Part of the credit goes to a device the company is using in conjunction with the software: Apple iPads.
Last year, the company equipped employees in its pick-and-pack operation with iPads. Now, when the WMS receives an order, it transmits the order information—including item location and quantity— to the iPad of the worker who is nearest the item. In the past, workers had to go to a work station to pick up paper picking instructions. Eliminating that step has drastically cut travel time.
The new system has brought other benefits as well. Because the WMS sends orders via e-mail to the iPads, there's no need for paper, says company president Tim Markley. And because the company's online store is now integrated with the WMS, orders can be instantly transmitted to the warehouse floor for processing. This has saved some 1,000 hours per year in order-entry time in comparison with the old system.
Markley is looking for other ways to integrate the iPads into his company's operations. For example, he's exploring opportunities to use the devices for workforce management.
Granted, iPads and GPSs may not be the first things that come to mind when we think of technologies to enhance supply chain operations. But as Markley's and Beabout's experiences show, sometimes there's a big payoff to thinking outside the box.