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Tracking 'Assets' In The Distribution Business via the Information Technology (IT) Department

 



The increasing sophistication of logistics and distribution activities is leading more and more warehouse and distribution managers to invest in transportation assets – such as plastic tote bins, bottle pallets and roll cages. Being specifically designed for a particular application they can significantly reduce handling operations and costs. 

They can also be used to carry information such as contents, quantity, destination and storage requirements. Many retailers use hundreds of thousands of these containers in their supply chain, representing a significant financial investment; losses can be a significant financial burden. To cover this cost suppliers are often charged for their use. 

Due to their cost, these assets are designed to circulate within the distribution network resulting in a need for some means of tracking their whereabouts. These assets lend themselves to automated control and tracking. 

IT systems provide essential tracking tools for these assets, monitoring multiple locations and pathways and networking across sites to provide a means of rationalizing the delivery of goods between suppliers and retailers. Product conveyances, too, represent an asset, for which optimized loading, journey scheduling and tracking are desirable. 

Radio-frequency (RF) tracking and wireless application protocol (WAP) technology, though not yet widely used because of the high costs of system implementation, lend themselves to improved asset tracking and offer significant advantages over conventional techniques. Delivery at the right price must involve greater use of IT and automated systems both in the warehouse and throughout the supply chain. 

For example, the speed of e-commerce development means that procurement, storage, delivery and fulfilment issues are assuming greater importance in business planning, and companies failing to integrate distribution and fulfilment plans into their wider business plan risk losing money through inefficient distribution operations. 

Specialist Containers - An Asset In Any Business 

The trend for logistics managers to use specially tagged containers seems likely to grow. Companies will increasingly adopt integrated container systems for ease of identification and tracking. For example, some companies charge their suppliers for use of these assets - in its case returnable plastic tote bins. These are managed by the bin manufacturer. The inventory is monitored and controlled by an Asset Management software package. 

Careful selection of assets also has other benefits, such as better, safer stacking and more stable loading. The concept of returning transportation assets is not new. Beer kegs have for many years been returned to the brewer for re-use. However, at the time returnable kegs were introduced brewers made no charge for them, with the result that theft became a problem and pub owners who used more than one brewer frequently returned them to the wrong brewery. The advent of tagging means that brewers can now track delivery data and identify instances of pub owners obtaining supplies from other brewers. 

The system has not been without its problems though: tags proved expensive, they had to be removed each time the keg was refilled and theft continued to be a problem with the lightweight aluminium kegs. Most brewers have now moved to stainless steel kegs. Similarly, carbon dioxide cylinders were originally loaned to pub owners at no charge, suffering the same problems, despite the urgings of suppliers for the introduction of asset tracking systems. 

Tagging - The Key To Asset Tracking 

In order to follow the whereabouts of their assets, distribution managers must have a means of identifying the contents and location of specific bins or cages. In a global supply chain, this can present a major problem for which solutions are being found in new technologies. Conventional barcoding can carry information required for efficient product delivery, but each product in a particular tote bin or roll cage must be scanned individually, with the result that they may need to be removed from the bin or pallet stack for scanning. 

The latest RF tags, however, as well as carrying a significant quantity of information in both read and write format, enable the contents of plastic tote bins, metal roll cages or even entire lorries to be checked without the need for unloading, regardless of the variety of products they are carrying; consequent savings in time and labor can be significant. 

Although the price of the RF tags themselves is falling, the overall cost of the infrastructure, with reading and writing at every location, is still a major hurdle. The development of WAP technology enables the information on tags to be read by mobile scanners, and relayed by mobile ‘phones to the internet, allowing an instant overview of asset location by managers anywhere in the world. This ability to know the location of stock at a given time can greatly improve the ability to meet demand in a market where customers increasingly want delivery ‘yesterday’. 

The rise of internet shopping and electronic commerce will fuel the need for greater control of the supply chain. In the USA, it is claimed that many homes already receive several deliveries per day of goods purchased via the internet. This trend is expected to be repeated in the UK, and is likely to have profound implications for distribution and logistics suppliers. 

New software and hardware technology, linked to scheduling systems, will ensure that the right equipment is in the right place at the right time and will be an important factor in the development of home retailing. Already, returnable totes are used for home grocery delivery, with picking direct to the container. Tagging allows warehouse records to be updated automatically leading to improved stock control. 

A frequent obstacle to the smooth running of delivery operations is poor efficiency at loading docks. When it was unable to find suitable software for clients to improve their management of delivery and haulier traffic, One solution is the development of a vehicle booking software package which records all movements of vehicle traffic on, around and off warehouse sites. 

Experience with feasibility studies and consultancy work suggests that many firms under-utilize, and poorly managed, their docks. Computerization of dock allocation and usage enables the dock facility to be used more efficiently.

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