Rugged Mobile Computing: A Quality Issue
Mobile data collection systems provide real-time visibility for batch traceability, raw materials levels, and finished goods inventory.
Innovative vehicle-mounted, hand-held, and wearable mobile computers must be dependable, tough, and reliable. Wireless computers extend corporate networks to mobile workers in demanding conditions and only rugged mobile computers drive down costs and improve customer satisfaction. These are quality-centric concepts.
Baldwin Richardson Foods, headquartered in Frankfort, Illinois, with manufacturing facility in Macedon, New York, produces bakery fillings, syrups, sauces, toppings, beverage mixes, condiments packets, and other food products. “Our operations were all manual. We wanted to automate and had looked into different bar coding systems over the years, but nothing was the right fit,” says Craig Czajka, the IT manager at Baldwin Richardson Foods. “Our [enterprise resource planning] ERP system is everything to us—it runs the whole business. We couldn’t take a chance with any systems or vendors that hadn’t proven they could integrate with it.”
Based in Norcross, Georgia, LXE offered Baldwin Richardson Foods a full range of turnkey services, including radio integration, project and installation management, network design, technical support, and repair services. LXE helped the company transition to real-time visibility and gain control over raw materials, production status, and inventory transfers, warehousing, and distribution to customers. “Bar coding doesn’t fix things, it just makes things faster,” says Czajka. “We had to fix our processes first. The knowledge LXE had about working with our Ross ERP system was very valuable to us. Some of the other vendors we looked at had started to support Ross, but they weren’t there yet.”
LXE helped Baldwin Richardson Foods design a wireless network and mobile data collection systems to support new processes that provide real-time visibility for batch traceability, raw materials levels, and finished goods inventory.
Previously, production was carefully controlled, but the handling and storage of finished products relied on fork-truck drivers using paperwork. Raw materials were delivered to “cook decks” where cooks manually recorded the contents and amounts of each ingredient used in a batch. Completed products were stacked in cases on pallets at the end of the production lines. Fork-truck drivers cruised among any of the five to seven lines running that day, looking for full pallets, which they would pick up and deliver to a staging area for transfer to Baldwin Richardson Foods’ distribution facility. Paper order tickets informed drivers of the truck bay to deliver each pallet. Some production runs last for three days; others are completed in a shift. During production runs there were very few updates to the ERP system when drivers relied on paperwork. Backlogs developed and jobs often were not closed until three to six days after the actual production run ended. Because there were very few updates during production, data in the ERP system was often several days behind, making it difficult to accurately manage inventory.
“Some of the flavorings we use have little crossover in our product lines, so they might last six months. They come in 500-pound drums, but only 10 pounds might be used in a recipe. Flavorings are very expensive—some drums cost in the thousands, so we don’t want to keep extra that we don’t need,” says Czajka. “When the flavoring is delivered to the cook deck, the entire drum was taken out of inventory, and the system wouldn’t show it as available until after the job was closed out. If it was needed for something else, we knew it probably was in stock, but we didn’t really know, or know how much. We wanted to be more real-time, and that’s what bar coding does for us.” To protect against production stoppages from running out of ingredients, Baldwin Richardson Foods began taking full inventories every three or four months. “We had to, because we couldn’t trust what was happening on the floor,” says Czajka.
According to Wayne Baxter, of BaxTek Solutions, in Snellville, Georgia, a leading systems integrator that works closely with LXE in the quality PartnerPass program, “The increasingly significant role of food traceability makes the value of collecting real-time data less of an option and more of a necessity. Finding vendors with rugged data collection products is absolutely essential. We found that in cold-storage food plants and other food processing and warehousing situations, LXE has a vital role in HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points].”
Wireless data collection has improved control and productivity at the distribution facility. Manual receiving, order picking, and shipping have been replaced by bar code procedures. Bar code scanning ensures product codes and lot numbers are entered accurately. The ERP system relies on this information for first-in, first-out inventory management. Workers are directed to pick based on expiration date, helping to prevent holding expired products in inventory. As at the production facility, outgoing orders are scanned at the loading dock to ensure orders are complete and accurate. The operator’s job in the shipping department had regressed into checking loads and chasing paperwork so orders could be released. Now that processes are automated, the worker is back to spending the majority of his time on more productive work.
“The fork-truck drivers don’t have to ask the shipping person where things are all the time because now they can find them on their own; they just look them up on their hand-helds. That’s saving a lot of time at the warehouse,” says Czajka. Production and distribution operations that used to rely on paper now rely on LXE wireless computers. Despite its drawbacks, paper never crashes. The LXE computers rarely do, even though they are used heavily throughout the day and are carried in and out of coolers, freezers, and the busy production floor.
“Heavy duty was our No. 1 requirement for mobile computers,” says Czajka, “LXE is well known for being rugged, and they have a very good name in the industry. I can’t imagine what things would be like if the LXE computers weren’t as rugged as they are.” The immediate benefits to quality performance have been impressive:
• Records that were out of date by days are now updated in real time.
• Blind spots have been eliminated from production and inventory operations.
• Productivity is rising.
• Shipping errors have declined.
• Paperwork and the time it took to complete it have been driven out of production, handling, warehousing, and shipping operations.
• Lot tracking has improved and compliance with traceability regulations is simplified.
• As the system proves itself, Baldwin Richardson Foods will be looking to eliminate the two-day shut downs to take inventory at both facilities.
“I believe that in this age of terror, the only thing that can stop a small group of committed individuals is a large group of committed individuals. Only all of us acting together, with wise policies and sound judgments, can make our world safer,” says Margaret A. Hamburg, a Food and Drug Administration administrator.
“The role of technology to ensure a safe food supply chain is only going to grow and quality-focused companies like LXE are perfectly positioned,” agrees Baxter.