October 2005 | Case Studies | I.T. Toolkit

Metro Transit Gets on Schedule

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King County Metro Transit was missing the bus, using an outdated system to distribute its 12 million transit schedules. The fix? A new WMS, advanced mobile technology, and additional warehouse equipment.

In Seattle and the rest of King County, Wash., transit riders can go to the web to get bus schedules, plan trips, or see how buses are moving along their routes in real time. But that doesn't mean King County Metro Transit has entered the paperless age.

In fact, for one bus route that runs from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to downtown Seattle, Metro publishes 105,000 copies of the schedule, three times a year. "And we usually run out," says Jan O'Hara, acting lead at the transit agency's distribution warehouse.

Managing an inventory of 12 million schedules is increasingly hard for Metro. The agency distributes schedules and brochures to its own facilities around the county and to external customer locations such as libraries, office buildings, senior centers, and department stores. Four employees in vans visit these sites to check inventory, take new orders, and replenish stock.

Back at the warehouse, the two vertical carousels Metro uses to store printed material can no longer handle the demand. Metro keeps the overflow "on the floor, double stacked, and on two pallet racks where we use forklifts to get what we need," O'Hara says.

Metro's 13-year-old warehouse management system, running on the MS-DOS operating system, hasn't had an upgrade since the agency first installed it. The only reports O'Hara can pull from the system are those the vendor built into the original solution. The agency's information needs have changed over the years, but it hasn't had a way to reconfigure existing reports or create new ones.

"If we want to add up how many timetables a customer has used, or figure out how many pieces of information a distributor has given out, we have to do it by hand," O'Hara says.

Right now, under a tight budget, that kind of data is important because Metro is trying to print only as many schedules as customers actually need. Getting this type of information out of the system takes days.

And the data isn't reliable. If Metro's distributors can't replenish a customer's stock from inventory they carry in their vans, they enter the order in a handheld terminal, connect the terminal to an old-fashioned car phone in the van, and upload the data over a cellular network to a warehouse computer with a 2,400-bits second modem.

"The data is sometimes corrupted and it's hard to get a clear line," O'Hara says.

To monitor inventory inside the warehouse, the staff relies on physical counts, because the WMS doesn't always provide reliable information. Recently, "the database said we were in the hole by 1,900 pieces, then we found an entire pallet," O'Hara says.

After years of putting continuing strain on an obsolete system, Metro is finally getting the upgrade it needs. The agency plans to add two new carousels to its warehouse, replace the mobile data system, and tie everything together with a new warehouse management system—Warehouse Librarian from Intek Integration Technologies, Bellevue, Wash.

Automatic Updates

Metro's carousel vendor, Pacific Integrated Handling, recommended Warehouse Librarian to the transit agency. Metro also considered Intek's product 13 years ago, "but at the time, we didn't have enough volume to justify such a big system," O'Hara says.

Unfortunately, the smaller package Metro chose at that time didn't offer an upgrade path. This time, Metro looked for software that provided automatic upgrades along with local support.

The upgrades Intek bundles into its Warehouse Librarian software license are a big selling point, says Martin McLean, Intek's senior vice president, sales and business development. Although customers configure the solution to meet specific needs, all users get a product based on standard code. Rather than rewrite custom software for individual clients, Intek delivers the same upgrades across the board.

"This lowers users' cost of ownership significantly," McLean says. Building interfaces with material handling systems into its software is another way Intek keeps cost of ownership down.

"Even in a Tier One package, spinning a carousel or controlling a conveyor requires intermediate or middleware software," McLean says. "We have direct control of those devices." Not having to buy additional software again reduces costs.

Intek designs its products for Tier Two customers—organizations with revenues of $10 million to $300 million per year, according to McLean. While the software is priced to fit the budgets of those medium-sized firms, it offers Tier One functionality, Intek says.

King County Metro will use Intek's native interfaces to drive its White Systems carousels from Pacific Integrated, as well as a new mobile data system from Versatile Mobile Systems, Lynwood, Wash. Metro's distributors will trade in their old handheld terminals for Falcon 4220 PDAs from PSC, Eugene, Ore.

Now when distributors replenish a literature rack with stock from their vans, or take an order for more schedules from the warehouse, they record the transaction on the PDAs. Distributors then transmit the data over the Cingular wireless network, using General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) technology, to a server at the warehouse running Versatile Mobile's Mobiquity software.

"The nature of GPRS is that it's always on—the handhelds are connected to the Internet all the time," says Ray Barrett, senior services consultant at Versatile Mobile. Metro's distributors have the option to connect after every stop or, if they find themselves temporarily without wireless coverage, they can collect several orders and send them in a batch.

At the warehouse, the server periodically exports orders to Warehouse Librarian. "The system detects the order, and prompts a warehouse employee to pick the items off the conveyors and box them," Barrett says.

After running the old and new systems in parallel for a while, Metro expects to cut over to the new system before February, when service changes go into effect and it will need to distribute new schedules.

Once the implementation is complete, O'Hara can get a clear picture of her operation without spending days creating reports by hand. "We can pull the raw data out of Warehouse Librarian and dump it into report writers, so we can manipulate it and look at trends," she says.

"I'm most anxious to be able to report the data to my supervisors and managers in a more reliable way," O'Hara says. She will be able to tell them, for example, how many printed pieces moved into and out of the warehouse, and where they went.

Ability to Expand

And she'll be able to modify the reports whenever her information requirements change. "We don't know what we'll need over the next 10 years," O'Hara says. "We want the ability to expand, not be locked into something we ordered years ago."

In the future, O'Hara also hopes to use Warehouse Librarian to provide better information to the Metro departments that rely on her services.

"I would love to tell the people who create the brochures and informational pieces when we're getting low, how many cases we have left, and when they should reorder, so they can allocate budget accordingly," she says. "They need to know two to four months ahead of time when the stock is getting low."

Today, the only way to monitor inventory is to count boxes.

"We also don't have any space in our current database to record who created the piece, who paid for it, and how to contact them," O'Hara says. That will change when Metro implements Warehouse Librarian.

Tracking customer use and timetable trends over the long term is also on O'Hara's wish list. "Then we'll be able to look at possible future scenarios based on what we've seen in the past," she says.

It will take some time for Metro to recover its investment in Warehouse Librarian. But without a doubt, the new system will provide one important, measurable benefit from the start, O'Hara says: "We will be able to maintain or improve our service levels."

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