New and Improved

Jun 01, 2004 9:30 PM  By

To say that catalogers would be lost without technology is an understatement. From merge/purging mailing lists on the front end to tilt-tray sorting SKUs in the warehouse, marketers have come to rely on technological advances to run most aspects of the business.

Many catalogers today are looking to technological innovations to solve problems and improve processes; others are waiting for new features on software and systems to become standard so that prices come down enough for them to get in on the action. Because there are so many advancements continually occurring, we’ve asked the experts about better picking and packing systems, improved Internet protocol telephony, and the newest generation of campaign management software. So whether you’re ready to make an investment now or are just beginning to survey what’s available, you’ll be better prepared to assess how technology can help enhance your catalog business. with catalog management software (CMS) systems, which manage the entire process from the moment the order is taken until the product is shipped out, warehouse management software (WMS) focuses exclusively on the picking, packing, and shipping of orders.

Among the technology developments showing the most promise for catalogers:

Pick-to-light systems display mountings

Pick-to-light systems can be equated to a residential neighborhood at night, wherein each product (like a house) is clearly marked with a corresponding numerical code (akin to a street address) and has a light in front of it. When a picker goes through the warehouse to pick an order, software turns on the lights in front of the appropriate products to show the picker where they are. While pick-to-light itself isn’t new, improvements are being made in the buss bars — the solid metal bars used to transmit signals from the main terminal to a remote location.

Buss bars allow individual displays to be positioned anywhere along the shelf, greatly easing reslotting and reconfiguration, says Tom Guschke, a principal with Palm Beach Gardens, FL-based warehousing consultancy Keogh Consulting. “The busses carry both power and communications. The displays snap into place and are easily set up on the software.”

Guschke notes that several pick-to-light vendors are developing wireless, individually addressable, battery-operated pick displays that can be placed virtually anywhere — on pallets, racks, or shelves — and addressed via a radio frequency (RF) network. Pick-to-light systems vendors include Real Time Solutions, a division of Danville, KY-based FKI Logistex (www.fkilogistex.com) and Germantown, WI-based Professional Control Corp. (www.pccweb.com).

Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags

RFID and radio frequency data communication (RFDC) integrated with a WMS “are the most revolutionary” use of technology, Ellis says, because they significantly increase accuracy and reduce the paper flow in the warehouse. They use wireless technology to manage inventory, monitor pick/pack accuracy, and control product movement in real-time.

To maximize the impact of the technology, Ellis says, catalogers have to tag every product as soon as it is received. Every time a product is moved, stationary scanners located throughout the warehouse relay the information through the RF system.

Ellis equates RFID tags to “barcodes on steroids.” The difference, Ellis says, is that instead of pointing a scanner at a specific target, namely a barcode, the RFID tags emit radio waves, allowing scanners to continuously monitor the product and activity.

“In most warehouses today,” Ellis says, “the product is unloaded, counted, and entered into the system.” The location is entered either as staging or the storage location. If it is entered as staging, then when it is moved to storage, someone has to update the computer. If it is entered as storage, then anyone seeking that item will go to storage instead of staging to find it. “And if the item is placed in the wrong bin location, then there is a search to find it. RFID/RFDC integrated with WMS eliminates all of those variables,” Ellis says.

All that accuracy is costly. Ellis estimates that disposable tags cost about $0.60-$0.70 each and reusable tags run $2.40-$2.60. As for RFID scanners, the price depends on their range of depth, Guschke says. Simpler machines that can transmit up to 20 ft. can run $1,000-$2,000, whereas scanners with greater ranges can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Other variables that influence pricing include how much interference the scanner can handle. The myriad suppliers of RFID technology include Telford, PA-based Accu-Sort Systems (www.accusort.com), Atlanta-based MARC Global (www.marcglobal.com), Jacksonville, FL-based RF Depot (www.rf-depot.com), and Arlington Heights, IL-based Weber Marking Systems (www.webermarking.com).

Integrated voice technology solution (IVTS)

IVTS is an improvement in voice recognition systems in which pickers walk the warehouse with RF phones that enable them to communicate with colleagues who are in front of computers showing the orders to be picked.

IVTS “provide true paperless and real-time task direction,” says Keogh’s Guschke. The technology now extends from receiving through order processing, inventory management, cycle counting, replenishment, and packing — all seamlessly integrated with the WMS. Vendors include Murray Hill, NJ-based Lucent Technologies (www.lucent.com) and Vocollect in Pittsburgh (www.vocollect.com).

Microload automated storage/retrieval systems (AS/RS)

These fully automated, high-rise racking systems, created for storing small items such as CDs, hardware, medical devices, and electronic components, are integrated with retrieval devices that provide high-speed put-away and retrieval.

“These solutions greatly increase space usage without the previous compromises of lowered throughput capacity, higher cost, and complexity,” Guschke says. Manufacturers include Lewiston, ME-based Diamond Phoenix Co. (www.diamondphoenix.com), El Cajon, CA-based Greco Systems (www.grecosystems.com), and Cartersville, GA-based Knapp Logistics & Automation (www.knapp.com).