Bar-code scanning: bringing order to random weights

Foodservice distribution industry members are realizing the benefits that can be obtained from adopting bar-code scanning into their operations. Bar-code scanning can significantly increase the production process of distributors. Prominent companies such as Gordon Food Service and Atlantic Food Service are already using scanning technology in their operations. For distributors to get acquainted with bar-code scanning, they are advised to use the devices first on random-weight item handling.

Bar-code scanning will no doubt become widespread in the food-service distribution industry someday. The only question remaining is when.

While distributors and manufacturers continue wrangling over who is to blame for slow progress, a few distributors are quietly moving ahead and doing something about it. One is Atlantic Food Services, Manassas, Va., recipient of an ID Innovator Merit Award for its new automated warehouse system.

Another is Gordon Food Service, Grand Rapids, Mich., which pioneered bar-code scanning in the industry when it installed its first conveyorized pick system 15 years ago.

With the opening of its new Grand Rapids distribution center which began trial shipments in February, GFS is initiating a comprehensive bar-code-scanning program. The company is taking a gradual approach, but eventually scanning will expedite every phase of its warehouse operations from receiving and put-away to replenishment, order picking, and returns.

The first step in its new warehouse project focuses strictly on random-weight products. This strategy, operations/special projects manager Kirk Mortenson believes, could make sense for other distributors, too. If a company is looking for a pilot project to get its feet wet in scanning, random weights are a good place to start for several reasons, he says.

“Random-weight items represent a limited amount of product, compared with all of the other product categories, making them a manageable place to start.” At Gordon, for example, catch-weights account for fewer than 300 items and about 5 percent of the company’s total case volume.

POTENTIAL FOR BIG BENEFITS

Despite their small numbers, however, Mortenson points out, “They are an area where a distributor is likely to see immediate results.”

That is because selecting random weights is typically one of the most labor-intensive, time-consuming activities in the warehouse, and replete with opportunities for error.

Gordon’s present system for handling catchweights probably resembles the way most distributors work. The selector writes the weight of the item on a piece of paper or duplicate pick label which must be collected and given to a clerk. The clerk then keys in the information at a computer terminal so it can be incorporated for invoicing. This series of steps disrupts the selector and requires work to transfer bits of paper around, plus labor to enter data. Each time the selector writes a weight and the clerk then reads and keys it is also an opportunity for error.

Bar-code scanning with radio-frequency-based scanners eliminates the whole procedure. It requires placing a bar-coded weight symbol on each product. The selector then uses a portable laser-equipped terminal to scan the bar-coded weight. This immediately sends the information to the computer, enabling it to produce a correct, extended invoice without further labor.

An alternative for handling random weights is to place a unique, bar-coded ID number on each catchweight and create a computer record for that item that includes the weight. Later, when the selector scans the ID, the computer identifies the item and matches its correct weight for invoicing. This is how Atlantic’s system will probably work.

UCC-128

Rather than take a piecemeal approach to the problem, Mortenson notes, Gordon extensively researched the current state of bar coding by foodservice manufacturers and evaluated alternatives before settling on an approach. Finally, it decided to utilize and require vendors to use the UCC-128 Shipping Container Code with Application Identifiers. It is the newest, most complete format developed by the Uniform Code Council, Dayton, Ohio, for handling information beyond that contained in the UPC Shipping Container Code. It was endorsed by a multi-industry Distribution Efficiency Task Force including the National-American Wholesale Grocers Association, Falls Church, Va., in 1990.

Gordon chose it not only because it would supply all the information it needed, Mortenson stresses, but also because it provides numerous internal benefits to manufacturers.

The company found few vendors already using alternatives and the few in place were internal systems that varied from one company to another. Therefore, Gordon came to the conclusion that initiating the implementation of this most comprehensive system would help foster adoption of a workable standard throughout the industry.

UCC-128 is a further development of the Universal Product Code (UPC) system, that incorporates, in addition to item and shipping container codes, methods for bar-coding additional information such as weight, production date, expiration date, lot number, and serialized unit IDs. The ability to easily track these kinds of data through scanning in their own operations holds significant benefits for manufacturers, Mortenson points out. This was a key to its strategy for gaining compliance by vendors in supplying the codes.

Gordon worked closely with vendors through a painstaking process that included distributing its own Bar-Code Requirements handbook spelling out its labeling requirements. It also has strategies in place for dealing with non-compliant product, Mortenson adds, but its first strategy is making clear to vendors that labeling is their responsibility and a normal part of doing business with Gordon.

Other distributors with less clout than the $825-million-a-year leader stand to gain by taking advantage of Gordon’s work by installing systems that use the same standard.

There are alternatives, such as the unit ID approach Atlantic plans, or applying one’s own bar-coded weight labels in-house as product is received. In fact, the former Holleb & Co., Bensenville, Ill. (now Kraft Foodservice, Chicago), installed such a system roughly five years ago. Then vice president, distribution, Neil Holleb said at the time that the system provided huge benefits in speed and accuracy in handling random-weight products.

Joey Pierce of North American Systems, Richmond, Va., which designed Atlantic’s system, notes its approach can also use UCC-128 when vendor codes are in place.

GETTING STARTED NOW

Scanning was still novel when Holleb launched its program. There have since been tremendous improvements in the availability, range, and pricing of equipment needed, which puts scanning truly within reach of many distributors.

A basic starter system might require a few hand-held scanner terminals and a radio-frequency base station for communications between the scanners and host computer. If vendors do not supply bar codes and in-house weight labeling is required, another needed component would be a scale with bar-code capability.

One can also use means other than RF to transfer data from scanners to the host computer, such as wired links. This could reduce start-up costs but eliminates the advantage of instantaneous communications.

One key point, Mortenson notes, is that scanning does not have to be an all-or-nothing type of project. Random weights may be a good place to begin implementing and experimenting with such a project since present methods leave so much room for improvement in accuracy and efficiency.

Many manufacturers still seem unaware or unconvinced of the benefits scanning offers distributors as well as their own operations, and say they are still waiting for indications it really is something distributors will use. A few well-placed pilot projects might convince them.

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