November 2005 | Case Studies | DC Solutions

Food Bank Hungry for an Inventory Management Solution

Tags: Warehousing

To feed its need for more efficient warehousing and inventory management, the Food Bank For New York City trades in a manual system for a WMS.

Some important work in our country—helping feed the less fortunate—is carrie d out on a grand scale at the Food Bank For New York City, the nation's largest food bank.

The Food Bank provides 67 million pounds of food annually to more than 1,100 nonprofit community food programs throughout New York City's five boroughs. As a result, more than 240,000 meals are offered daily to people who would otherwise go hungry.

This good work is conducted from the Bronx, N.Y.-based organization's 100,000-square-foot warehouse. Its 102 employees work from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., handling 253,000 pounds of food each day. Such an operation requires top-notch processes, and leaves little room for error.

Until recently, however, the Food Bank For New York City's manual operation prevented its staff from delivering food efficiently. The staff was using a paper-based tracking system, and managing inventory manually. Employees entered adjustments into a financial software package ill-suited to warehousing operations. All of this led to lost paperwork and inaccuracies.

Antonio Peralta, the Food Bank's director of IT, knew there had to be a better solution for the organization.

"To gain control of our inventory, we had to find a system that could track inventory in a paperless environment," Peralta says. "We also needed software that was easy to manage, could provide product locations, and track movement in an easy, yet efficient way."

Just Being Neighborly

A Warehouse Management System (WMS) was likely the ideal solution for the Food Bank facility, but Peralta was unsure which one could best meet the organization's needs. So the Food Bank created a two-person team to research possible solutions. Interestingly, it found the right technology at a neighboring food warehouse.

The Food Bank had a relationship with the distribution center at nearby Krasdale Foods, and checked with its team during the WMS search. Krasdale was using Open WMS from North Branch, N.J.-based CSI (Control Solutions Inc.).

"We looked at three different WMS packages. Krasdale knew the CSI system well, and recommended it," says Peralta, so the Food Bank added Open WMS to its shortlist. The CSI package eventually won out for several reasons.

"The system's functionalities were impressive—just what we needed," explains Peralta. "We looked at Open WMS' bar-code technology; how it kept track of products by location in the warehouse; and how it instantly deducted inventory through handheld units, keeping track of product movement and live inventory." Plus, says Peralta, the cost fit the Food Bank's budget.

When it began its WMS search, the Food Bank was an operation greatly in need of an inventory management upgrade, says Ron Robinson, vice president, sales and new business development, CSI.

"The Food Bank used a paper-based inventory system and extensive data input, which severely handicapped the operation," Robinson says. "As a result, inventory was difficult to find, and was often misplaced. Paperwork, as well, was frequently lost. The Food Bank was plagued with significant inaccuracies."

CSI worked with the Food Bank to gather specifications for the system, and did a site survey to establish where it needed access points for radio communications between the host system, handheld terminals, and forklift-mounted terminals workers used throughout the DC.

One requirement for the WMS was that it connect to Microsoft's Navision Financial System, which Food Bank management planned to implement. "Because Open WMS is structured to satisfy numerous vertical industries, we modified it to meet the Food Bank's needs," explains Robinson.

The implementation process took about nine months, and though it went well overall, like any such project, a few bugs had to be worked out.

"After the implementation, we found that the access points didn't provide sufficient coverage, so we added more," Peralta says.

A security issue due to the system's "openness" was another problem the team encountered during implementation. "Anyone who could access the front end on their computer also could access the system's tables directly, which created the potential for data to be manipulated or permanently deleted from the database," explains Peralta.

The solution was to insert a graphical user interface. Workers now have to fill out a form that updates the tables, preventing any accidental corruption.

Lending Support

Finally, the new system didn't support the handheld computers the DC employees were using. As a result, CSI made an equipment change fairly early in the process to support the team's existing handheld units.

"There are always challenges with a WMS structure that can support numerous verticals," says Robinson. "Every company has a unique way of doing business."

With the updated system in place, the Food Bank was able to turn its operations around. The new process begins when it receives packaged food at the dock, which can handle daily deliveries from up to 12 trucks. Using handheld units, Food Bank employees enter the food received by batch, then move the food items onto hi-lo forklifts, and take them to their warehouse locations.

Forklift drivers use mounted Intelligent Instrumentation CE terminals with PSC PowerScan tethered scanners to read bin barcodes and record exact locations in the system. The food waits on pallets stacked 35 feet high before it is repacked to fill orders for the organizations that provide food to New York's hungry.

When an order is placed through the Food Bank's system, it first goes to the WMS database for transfer to the handheld units. The logistics department prints bar-coded pick lists and sends them to the warehouse supervisor, who distributes them to floor workers.

The workers take the pick list and head out to the bins. Employees scan the pallet bar code for each item or pallet picked, and enter the amount in their terminal so the WMS can track their work.

When they scan the last item, the terminal displays "order complete" to verify picking has been done correctly. Employees then send information back to the host. The host, in turn, shares the information with the financial system, which invoices the order and adjusts inventory.

The new technology has led to many improvements in the Food Bank's operations. Getting rid of paper, for one, has been a boon to productivity.

"We no longer manually write down quantities, which was so time consuming," says Peralta.

Because it is a food operation, the Food Bank must be cognizant of product circulation. Open WMS monitors food circulation to ensure the DC operates on a first-in, first-out basis.

The new solution also gives the staff peace of mind. "With the system's accuracy and live inventory, we are confident that our online ordering system is updated correctly," says Peralta.

Automatic Communication

Integration between the warehouse and the logistics department has improved as well. The WMS and order-taking systems are integrated, which means the logistics department doesn't have to go to the WMS front end to receive information. Order communication is automatic.

Customer service also benefits from the new technology. Equipped with real-time information, customer service personnel can give accurate reports about what food is in stock.

Peralta's job has also become easier as a result of the WMS implementation. Instead of doing physical checks to track product, Peralta now has data at his fingertips. In addition, he spends less time troubleshooting and ensuring that everyone has the information they need, when they need it.

Finally, the WMS has paid off in hard numbers. Employees can now conduct physical inventories three to four times faster than in the past. The result? More food goes where it needs to, quickly. The Food Bank has increased distribution by six million pounds from last year.

In the end, it's not only the Food Bank that benefits from the new system, but some of New York's neediest residents—and that's the biggest return on investment for Peralta and his team.