December 2015 | Case Studies | I.T. Toolkit

Azteca Foods Craves Inventory Management System 

Tags: Inventory Management, Retail, Supply Chain Management, Logistics, Technology , Supply Chain

Azteca Foods spices up inventory tracking with an advanced automated system that doesn't cost too much dough.

Many manufacturers and distributors still use paper-based inventory systems and other manual processes in their daily operations. But for companies such as Azteca Foods, with perishable products and distribution operations that span the globe, there just isn't time to do things the old way anymore. Implementing new technology is necessary to remain a market leader.

Azteca Foods is a family owned and operated company that offers a variety of products to meet the needs of consumers, chefs, and manufacturing partners through retail, food service, and industrial businesses—both domestic and global. Consumers can find the company's products, which include tortillas and ready-to-bake salad shells, in the refrigerated section of most leading grocers. Azteca Foods is headquartered in Chicago, where it operates a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that employs more than 135 people.

In the past, Azteca used a paper-based system that required employees and line supervisors to record data with clipboards at the end of each shift. But that system wasn't keeping pace with the global company's warehousing and distribution needs. "Supervisors and warehouse personnel had to use paper tally sheets to total and reconcile the cases moved from the production line into the finished goods warehouse," recalls Nannette V. Zander, vice president of information technology for Azteca Foods. "If a mistake occurred, they needed to recount and reconcile with manufacturing. And because the system was paper-based, we couldn't search electronically or report with our ERP system."

The old system inhibited the company's operation and negatively impacted the bottom line, because it was too time-consuming to keep up with the volume of products Azteca manufactured and distributed to global customers. While searching for a new solution to automate these manual processes, Azteca also had Verizon at its facility, working on installing network extenders to expand cellular service because the company had trouble getting cellphone signals inside the building.

Azteca, Meet Barcoding

When Azteca told Verizon about the problems it had with inventory management and traceability, Verizon pointed Azteca in the direction of its partner company, Baltimore, Md.-based Barcoding, Inc., a systems integrator specializing in developing, deploying, and managing enterprise-wide solutions that help companies increase operational efficiency, collect data, and manage inventory.

"Azteca wanted a way to track pallets of goods moving throughout its warehouse," says David Mikesell, senior software engineer, Barcoding. "As pallets came off the line, Azteca sought to assign a unique number to each. Then, it could use that identifier to trace its pallets.

"Azteca also wanted to eliminate its manual data entry processes," he adds. "Operators had to write down what they produced and received in order to balance finished goods data at the end of a shift. Barcoding recommended and implemented a barcode scanning system, consisting of Zebra MC65 handheld computers, a customized mobile software application, an internally hosted web service, and network extenders to give Azteca maximum wireless coverage inside the facility."

Barcoding also created a custom mobile application for the handheld computers using its CaptureSoft eXpress web-based software platform.

Barcoding was able to design and provide a solution that would work wirelessly on the Verizon network. This saved Azteca significant time and money by using and expanding the existing infrastructure instead of having to install new facility-wide wireless capability.

Azteca was pleased with the solution that Barcoding delivered. "We required a solution that assigned an ID number to every pallet right off the production line," says Zander. "Barcoding listened to our concerns and developed a web service solution to accomplish our goals. In addition, Barcoding collects our data, and updates our devices and back-end database via the web."

When pallets come off the line, warehouse operators scan a barcode. The custom-built application then gathers information such as the shift, the line, the product, and the number of cases on the pallet. All this data is compiled into a unique pallet identification number. The application then stores the data, and transfers it to Azteca's back-end system.

With the ability to generate and assign individual numbers to each pallet, the pallets become fully traceable once they move into the finished goods warehouse. Now Azteca is able to tell where each pallet is located in the warehouse, exactly how much and what product it contains, which shift or line created it, and which pallets need to ship to each specific customer. The time saved from eliminating manual processes alone has had a positive impact on the company's bottom line. In addition, the new system has improved employee productivity and significantly enhanced the accuracy of collected data.

Now that it collects data reliably, in real time, Azteca can run reports in just a few seconds to double-check and balance production data with each warehouse shift, a system that works much better than the company's previous method of ground-level checks with paper checklists. Besides saving significant time on the warehouse floor, the new automation has eliminated the human errors that often occur with manual processes. Verizon's network extenders allow for facility-wide wireless data access instead of requiring workers to seek out specific access points.

Backup Plan

In addition to its installation and ongoing support of the new system, Barcoding also provides a reliable backup service by collecting data on its own servers, ensuring that workers can keep creating shipments if Azteca's servers go down.

A shift to automation can be uncomfortable for workers in any operation, but Azteca's employees adapted quickly to the new system. "While hesitant at first, the warehouse personnel are now excited to be a part of the solution, and have been helpful in its implementation at Azteca," Zander says. "Management now has the information available to track and report on the pallets in the warehouse."

In fact, one noticeable impact on the operation has been at the ground level, with the floor employees and supervisors who use the new equipment. "The excitement and enthusiasm of the line supervisors was striking," says Mikesell. "Even while we were explaining the new system, and demonstrating the handheld application, the supervisors were discussing ways they could use and expand the system to make their operation more efficient."

Along with the response from Azteca's workforce, the impact on the company's overall operation has also been positive. "Barcoding did an excellent job of figuring out how to best make our scanning solution work," says Zander. "They were careful to understand all our requirements and create a customized solution that will help drive efficiency, accuracy, and connectivity well into the future."

The solution had such a positive impact on operations that Barcoding honored Azteca with its Innovator of the Year Award, which recognizes companies that have implemented a mobile or automated data capture solution that greatly impacts the business's efficiency, accuracy, and connectivity. When delivering the award to Azteca during Barcoding's annual conference, Shane Snyder, president, Barcoding Inc., commended Azteca Foods "for demonstrating how a seemingly small change in operations—such as assigning pallet numbers—can have a huge impact on an organization."

With these large successes in improving Azteca's facility behind them, the two companies are looking toward the future to see how they can expand the solution and improve operations even further. "Our solution opens many possibilities in other departments, as well as other facilities," says Zander.

A few ideas are already in the works. Azteca is exploring options for adding printing capabilities to the new system. "Azteca would like to expand the solution by introducing printers that create pallet tickets," Mikesell explains. "In turn, the company can use the tickets to track product in the shipping process." Azteca is also looking at connecting the new database with its existing ERP system so it can integrate production information with other business processes.

The supply chain has become so complicated and inundated with so many forms of data that keeping track of it all manually won't be an option for much longer. It's important for businesses to look ahead and keep pace with technologies that will help them grow. Companies can benefit by following Azteca's example and replacing manual processes with automation to help reduce overhead, maintain a reasonable bottom line, keep shipping times to a minimum, and compete on a global scale.






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