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Software for Food Distributors

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My Thoughts from the MODEX Show 2016


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My Thoughts from the MODEX Show 2016

Apr 27 2016

My Thoughts from the MODEX Show 2016
Showcasing the latest in Warehouse and Inventory Management Solutions

As you know, I'm always looking at and analyzing the latest in technology to understand and apply it to our entree food distribution solution. The MODEX Show in Atlanta earlier this month showcased new and up-and-coming technology to maximize efficiency and profitability for businesses. This was the perfect opportunity for us to not only discover what's coming next, but see it first hand and talk with developers. 

Currently the programming team here at NECS is working on designing our second generation of our Electronic Warehouse Manager system and other new features to enhance your entree software. To help with our planning, Tony Vlahos, Brittani Phillips and myself traveled to Atlanta for the MODEX Show and spent two days investigating the latest and greatest in warehouse and inventory management technology.

First off, to say we were overwhelmed is putting it mildly.  Even though we spent two full days at MODEX, we were only able to cover slightly more than half the show.  I know that many of you would have been just as excited as we were to see what's available and coming soon.  

Note that much of the technology we saw had promise, but is not quite ready for practical use. I will discuss these technologies before revealing the one currently available item that I would like to present as my clear winner at MODEX for entree.  What could that possibly be?  Read on to discover what it is...

Drones in the Warehouse

One of the incomplete, yet promising technologies is the practical and economic use of drones in business is starting to explode with opportunities.  The latest of these is the use of drones in the warehouse to cycle count inventory and search for products.  Sounds a little like science fiction, but a company called PINC Solutions had a booth and was showing off their Cycle Counting Drone.

Using a lightweight drone and barcode or RFID scanner, the drone can scan approximately 300 pallets per man hour. This is 50 times faster than the manual method.

With the time savings of using the drone to scan items above head height, your warehouse can open for business earlier.  No expensive fixed installations are required, the drone navigates using your aisles, existing warehouse racks and barcoded / RFID slot locations.

If you are interested in seeing how this works, check out this 1 minute video: Cycle Counting - The Drone Way.  This video is actually almost two years old, but will allow you to visualize how drones work when cycle counting inventory in a warehouse.  Specifically scanning the pallet labels in each warehouse slot and analyzing how many cases are left on pallet.

Is this technology ready for prime time?  I honestly don't think so, at least not currently.  So don't rush out and start buying drones for your warehouse.  But understand the economic appeal for a drone that costs about two thousand dollars over the cost of your employees doing cycle or physical inventory counts.  The drone would regularly count your inventory without complaint and at a very low cost. 

One of the issues with drones currently indoors are the propeller blades.  However a new drone (and a Kick Starter Project) called "Fleye" has solved that issue.  Take a look at the video on Fleye's website.  This drone can fly around all day long and never injur anyone with its propellers. It's also very quiet and looks a little like R2D2 from Star Wars. Envision a few of these flying safely around your warehouse, counting inventory and keeping your inventory accurate.  They could also be part of a warehouse surviellance system that activates when there is movement which they would fly towards and provide live/recorded video.

To summarize:  Drones will not be part of the second generation of our EWM - Electronic Warehouse Manager, but they are a technology that I am personally very interested in and will continue watch.  I might even purchase a Fleye drone to get to know its software and capabilities first hand.

Smart Glasses in the Warehouse

Another topic we wanted to closely investigate is the use of Smart Glasses (such as Google Glass Enterprise, Vuzix and Picavi) to provide your warehouse crew with a hands free display instead of holding a handheld computer or tablet.  Note that these Smart Glasses are also being called "Head Mounted Displays".

Many of you know that this is something that has captured my attention for a while.  But is it practical and ready for prime time?

To really analyze this, we spent some time at a private meeting with Vuzix, the developers of smart glasses specifically for enterprise use.  Below is a picture of Tony and myself checking out the latest from Vuzix, specifically their latest M300 model due out in a few months. It runs Android 6 - Marshmallow (and yes, the Fat Tire beer was delicious).  You can click here to watch a short promotional video about the M300 Smart Glasses.

These glasses work with Bluetooth devices such as a Bluetooth Barcode Scanner for long range scanning. They can also perform scanning with the built in camera.

The Vuzix model M300 smart glass projects a small floating screen in the upper right of your field of vision.  You can choose either to look at the floating screen or instead keep your normal field of vision.  After about a minute or so, it became very usable once you understood how easy it was to change your focus.

However, the model M3000 is what really caught my attention.  This unit improves on the next generation of smart glasses featuring advanced waveguide optics for hands-free mobile computing.  It can overlay graphics and allows you to easily distinguish things such as highlighting a specific slot location.  Here is a picture illustrating what it would look like when trying to find a slot location and looking down an aisle.

Here is what the M3000 looks like when mounted on a hard hat.  

And here is what the M3000 looks like by itself.  Notice the clear glass known as "see through optics", instead of a display unit.

We were told that yes, they should operate in a freezer.  However these new glasses won't realistically be available until later this year or possibly 2017.

Our quest for smart glass insight continued with a private dinner with Dirk Franke, the CEO of Picavi, based out of Germany.  His Picavi warehouse picking solution works with all smart glasses so he was able to provide us with insights about all the different options available.

To understand how the Picavi solution works, watch this 3-minute video.

We were very impressed with Dirk and I think we wore him out with our 4 hour dinner which included intense questions about how his system worked and if it would be practical for warehouse use.

One of the issues that concerned us was if the Smart Glasses would be easily broken by warehouse workers.  Dirk explained that from their experience, because the glasses are worn on the head, and the head is a part of our body we are very protective of, they remain safe. Especially because they stay attached and don't easily come off.

To summarize:  Smart Glasses (also known as "Head Mounted Displays") have my attention and I am watching how this technology develops over the next year.  Also they can work with voice picking systems to provide the best of both worlds.

RFID Smart Labels

The latest technology involving reading RFID Smart Labels (or Passive RFID) really caught our attention because of the incredible features they could bring to a Warehouse Management System.  This includes saving man power, eliminating Cycle Counting, preventing theft and overall inventory accountability.

First let me comment on the cost of a Smart Label.  It costs about .10 cents/label extra for this technology.  The label has all the normal information printed on it, including the barcode.  But inside the label is a Passive RFID transmitter.  It can only be read when a special RFID scanner sends energy towards it.  Otherwise just think of it like your EZ-PASS when going through tolls (although not as big and bulky).  The EZ-PASS does not give off any energy, but is only read when energy passes through it.

Label printer companies such as Zebra, offer Smart RFID Label printers.  You can discover their full line of RFID label printers by clicking here.

Here is an RFID scenario which explains their potential to your operation:

• Each CASE and every PALLET has an RFID Smart Label which can contain much more information than a barcode.

• Note that PALLET labels are normally called "License Plates".  The information encoded on them is perptually updated and includes the item, date received, purchase order received from, vendor received from, lot number received, current slot location, quantity received, weight received, quantity remaining and the weight remaining.

• You do not have to scan every barcode label on a PALLET.  Just point the RFID scanner at the PALLET and all the labels on the CASE's (even the ones not visible) are read in about a second or two.  

• We saw how quickly 50 or so RFID labels can be read at once with a product demo at the MODEX Show.  To see 50 RFID labels read in just a second or two was quite impressive.

• All of the locations where inventory can go in and out of will have fixed RFID scanners installed.  This is actually the same kind of technology that high end retail stores use to make sure you don't steal something.  If you try to exit the store and the cashier hasn't taken the RFID tag off your clothes, alarms start going off.  And yes, if an employee tries to take inventory out of your building and it isn't accounted for as a sale, etc., you can have alarms go off.  I must say they could remove the label, but there are clever things that can be done to even reveal this, such as alarms going off when it's taken out of the slot location.

• Below is an image of a pallet being scanned automatically as its entering the warehouse. Note the RFID fixed scanners on either side of the door. As quickly as that forkift is driving, all the CASE's on the PALLET are scanned and inventory updated.  It could also be used as a "Checking" solution when a PALLET exits the warehouse.  All of the CASE's on the PALLET would be read and confirmed for the customer's delivery.  Any missing or items that should not be on the PALLET would be reported immediately.

• Next, each of your slot locations would have an inexpensive fixed RFID scanner.  This RFID scanner would always report exactly what CASE's and PALLET's were in that Slot.  In essence, all the items in each of your slots would be automatically counted and all the details known about that inventory.

• When inventory is picked for a customers order, the warehouse worker would be directed to which slot location(s) to pull from.  There would be no need to scan any barcodes.  If the wrong item was pulled, the worker would be warned. Then when they passed through a certain point in your warehouse, all the inventory picked would be automatically read.  This would allow inventory and the invoice to be properly updated with the weights, lot numbers, serial numbers, etc..  Note that PC. items pulled from a CASE, if they didn't have a Smart Label, would need to be scanned.

The above scenario shows how Cycle Counting, Order Picking and theft prevention could be attained.

I've left out a lot of details and didn't cover subjects like Receiving, Put Aways, Movements, etc., but my point here is simply to help you understand the potential.

Note also that the end user can also gain much from the use of Smart Labels.  For example, the chef at a restaurant could open the doors to a walk in cooler, point his RFID scanner into the cooler and in a few seconds know everything he has in that cooler. 

To summarize:  RFID labels can bring amazing cost, inventory accountability, labor and time savings to a food distributors operation.  But progress is slow here until manufacturers start to use this technology or are forced to by government food traceability rules. It must be established that spending the extra .10 cents/label is cost effective for the manufacturer, the distributor and ultimately the end user of the product.   Note that NECS will be exploring the use of Smart Labels for PALLET License Plates, which a food distributor can generate themselves and obtain benefits such as letting you know where each PALLET is in your warehouse and what should be left on it.

Voice Picking

There was not a shortage of voice picking warehouse management solutions at the MODEX Show.  However one voice picking technology company caught our attention called Top-Vox.  

Top-Vox has a software interface called Lydia, which Tony saw the potential regarding integration with entree.

However they also had some unique hardware options (all freezer ready) that I thought many of you might find interesting.

The first is the option of instead of wearing a headset with microphone, they provide a vest option.  They remarked that many warehouse pickers don't like wearing the headset and microphone, but instead the vest is an ideal replacement.  You can hear the commands via speakers in the vest and speak in a normal voice via microphones built into the vest.

They also have a smart watch option so the warehouse picker doesn't have to rely on the voice commands.  They can look at the message on their watch for their assignment.

And last of all, they have a back of the hand barcode scanner that will work in the freezer and of course interfaces with their system.

Note that if you are interested immediately in a proven voice pick system, one of our partners, BFC Associates, is recommended.  We have already built integration of their Dakota Warehouse System into entree V4 and so far have three of our customers using their system.  If you contact them, please ask for Sam at BFC and let him know that Chris recommended you.

To summarize:  Voice picking is expanding and there are a lot of solid options to choose from.  This has our attention and we will be looking to create an integration with our next generation of our EWM - Electronic Warehouse Manager.  Ideally we would like our EWM system to provide you with three options: tablet, handheld computer and voice.  More on the latest handheld computer next.

The Perfect Handheld Computer / Barcode Scanner for your Warehouse?

I'm saving the best for last, and the winner of the award for most practical and amazing technology for entree goes to Zebra for their new TC8000 mobile computer.

To learn more about this new device that has caught a lot of industry buzz, we first attended a packed out seminar put on by Zebra at MODEX.  As a means of background, Zebra has been known for their line of fast and reliable thermal label printers.  However they recently purchased Symbol and Motorola, and have gone full speed into the handheld computer / barcode scanner market.  They absolutely got all the features right with this new model.

Zebra’s TC8000 is the most innovative mobile computer solution on the market that I've ever seen. It features a revolutionary design, intuitive touchscreen, and all-day hot swap batteries to help your workforce increase productivity by 14%.

When I first picked one up, I was surprised at how light it was and how well I could hold it when using the strap.  It seems perfectly designed for the human hand, and you can even still use your hand and fingers while holding it.

If there’s one feature of the TC8000 that users love most, it’s the revolutionary screen angle. Zebra designed the TC8000 so that the screen faces the user — thereby eliminating the need to tilt the device to see the screen. By simply removing the need to actively turn it, the TC8000 reduces muscle effort by 15%. That’s a pretty impressive angle.  And if you've watched your warehouse workers using traditional handheld scanners, and how they are constantly tilting the scanner back and forth, to read the barcode, then view the screen, you will really appreciate how this time wasting wrist motion is eliminated.  And so will their wrists!

Equipped with the largest battery in its class, the TC8000 can hold a charge for three shifts before needing to be changed. And because productivity shouldn’t halt for a battery change, you can easily hot swap a dying battery for a fully charged one to keep working as though nothing happened.  And Zebra provides options for charging stations the best I've seen from any vendor.

The Zebra TC8000, of course, is a rugged tool for the job. There's IP65 sealing, which means total dust protection and also immunity to low pressure water jets from all directions. The TC8000 can handle 8-foot drops to concrete at room temperature and 6-foot drops over the full operating temperature range (which is -4 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit). 

It also includes a very cool and industry’s first hands-free proximity scanner in a handheld device, which can be enabled from a hip holster, presentation holster or a cart mount.  Turn it on and any barcode in it's path is read.

To see the Zebra TC8000 in action, click here to watch the almost 3 minute video.  It's worth the watch.

To summarize:  Zebra wins my MODEX award for the most useful, easy to use, innovative and cost effective tool for your warehouse with the TC8000!  You can expect the next generation of our EWM application to fully support it's many features.

Next Year Will You Join Us at PROMAT in Chicago?

We discovered that the MODEX Show is held every other year and alternates with a very similar show called PROMAT.

In 2017, the PROMAT Show will be held on April 3-6th at McCormick Place in Chicago.  It includes the same cutting edge inventory and warehouse technologies that MODEX offers.

If you are interested in attending next year, please contact me.  I'd like to meet up with you after and compare notes about what you thinkthe most promising technologies are.  And maybe this time we could cover the entire show!

Please click here to visit the PROMAT website and learn more.

I'm Honored by being voted and presented with a "Rock Star of the Supply Chain" Award

On a final note I wanted to mention that after 25 years of working hard in this industry, I was recognized with a "Rock Star of the Supply Chain" award, which I thought was very cool and a great honor.

I was voted by my peers via the March, 2016 issue of Food Logistics Magazine.

I wanted to share this recognition with my staff of creative and hardworking professionals who truly care about our customers’ success and go the extra mile without hesitation. Here at NECS we are all "Rock Stars of the Food Supply Chain" as we continue to produce innovative ERP software for food distribution, which drives our customers’ success and efficiency.

Click here for the article in Food Logistics Magazine and to read about my fellow rock stars.