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From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

June 1 , 2011

Supply Chain News: WESCO Distribution goes with 100% Wearable RF Terminals to Improve DC Performance

Hands-Free Technology Gives New Boost to Productivity in already High Performing DCs; Roll-Out Almost Plug and Play, WESCO Exec Says


SCDigest Editorial Staff

WESCO, a $5 billion, publicly traded electrical and industrial distribution and supply chain services company headquartered in Pittsburgh, has found a new path to enhanced logistics efficiency through deployment of wearable wireless terminals throughout its distribution operations.

The company has long achieved operational excellence across its network of seven North American distribution centers, supported by strong investments in technology and a culture that clearly fosters continuous improvement in distribution center performance.

SCDigest Says:


Support among the WESCO floor associates for the wearables is strong for both productivity and ergonomic reasons.

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WESCO was an early adopter of radio frequency technology, deploying handheld and truck-mounted terminals as far back as 1992. That technology supported an in-house developed Warehouse Management System (WMS) originally deployed on the "fault-tolerant" Tandem NonStop computer line (now an HP platform after Tandem was acquired).

As described by Larry Mosier, Vice President of Distribution Centers and Transportation at WESCO on a recent Videocast on our Supply Chain Television Channel, WESCO recently decided to make the move to 100% use of hands-free wearable wireless terminals, replacing the handheld and truck-mounted units previously utilized with new WT4090 devices from Motorola Solutions. (To view the full broadcast, download the slides, or listen to a podcast of the Q&A portion of the Videocast, go here: WESCO Drives Continuous Distribution Center (DC) Improvement with Hands-Free Wearable Terminals Videocast Materials.)

"The genesis of this project was a benchmarking exercise I did visiting another distribution center network and seeing this wearable technology applied in an environment that was very similar to ours,

Mosier said. "I knew right away we had something here. I loved the hands-free technology and how that just sped those associates up."

After a bit more research and system concepting, WESCO decided to go with the Motorola wearables - in a really big way. The strategy was 100% replacement: the wearables are deployed in every area of the DC, from receiving and putaway, through multiple types of piece, case and pallet picking, replenishment, consolidation and loading, including operators riding on multiple types of materials handling equipment in addition to workers walking the DC floor.

Even Mike Rusnak, manager of WESCO's Warrendale, PA distribution center, can usually be found with a WT4090 on his forearm.

"Basically, when I am on the distribution center floor, I have on the wearable device," Rusnak said. "Whether it's to answer a question out here on the floor, to do a stock check, or lots more, it doesn't matter, we've moved every facet of our WMS system out to these wearable devices so that you don't have to go to a terminal to find information."

The hands-free nature of the wearables has been one key to success, significantly improving productivity by freeing the operators from needing to pick and put down RF devices throughout their tasks they way they previously did with the handhelds.

"Compared to a handheld, the wearables are much lighter, and you don't have the complications of putting them in and out of a holster," said one WESCO order picker during the Videocast. "These are hands free, so you don't have to worry about setting your gun down when you are doing a pick."

Support among the WESCO floor associates for the wearables is strong for both productivity and ergonomic reasons.

(Distribution/Materials Handling Story Continues Below)


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"I am much more productive by being able to use two hands," added another WESCO associate. "I find it to be a much improved solution around the warehouse."

Context for Wearables is Ideal at WESCO

The operating scenario at WESCO is ideal for use if the wearable, and why they were deployed so pervasively. First, WESCO's operations make intense use of bar coding from receiving through shipping. With the wearables units, the scanner connected to the wearable terminal is mounted comfortably on the back of the associate's hand, making scanning very fast, often part of the natural motion of the picker's main task in an area.

Second, in recent years WESCO has adopted a process it calls "dynamic pick," replacing the previous wave-based approach. With dynamic pick, orders just flow to the DC floor from the order management system without first being waved. Associates then select the orders to pick using a number of criteria designed to maximize productivity, doing so in what is a real-time, interactive dialog with the WMS system.

Again, the light weight of the wearables and the immediacy of the screen being on an associate's forearm - versus a handheld in a holster- makes the WMS system interaction much more natural and productive versus the previous approach.

System Implementation was Very Smooth

The effort to move from the existing terminals to the new wearables was modest, Mosier said, and mainly involved reformatting existing RF screens to the new wearable form factor. That effort can also include doing things with colors on the screen to make them more quickly readable or to highlight certain information, or to create certain "hot keys" to speed up a certain process by reducing the amount of key entry.

WESCO used systems integrator Liberty Systems (St. Paul, MN) to help with the project.

"It really was almost a plug and play scenario," Mosier noted."Our internal IT department was not really required for the deployment of the wearables."

The units were rolled out facility by facility, and within each facility department by department (e.g., receiving, then picking, etc.).

"The roll out was very fast," Mosier said. "There was a small learning curve, and some system-related effort in setting up IP addresses and things like that, but after we got through the first facility, it was very fast," he added, noting that a WESCO DC in Montreal literally implemented the new wearables throughout the whole DC in a matter of just a few hours.

Rusnak added that the wearables have led to a number of operational benefits, increasing productivity and also reducing cycle times throughout the distribution centers.

As a next step, WESCO plans to add voice capability to the wearables where it makes sense to gain even more efficiencies, which Motorola's Mark Wheeler said is very easy to accomplish.

"The terminals are voice-ready when you deploy them," Wheeler noted. "They come with full up audio, all the connectors - we have the head sets accessories you need. You can easily add voice to these devices any time you are ready to go. It is an extremely flexible platform."

"The wearables work for us in every DC process," Rusnak added. "Where you will get the greatest return are in the areas where you have the most physical handling of product."

Do you have experience with wearable RF devices? What are the pros and cons? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below.

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