Rugged mobile computers help weather the economic storm

Following a transition from a paper-based system, one distributor held sales steady at the height of the economic downturn.

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Canadian owned and operated Chalifour, a co-op group of independent hardware and building materials retailers, distributes lumber, hardware, building materials, plumbing, power tools and more to customers throughout British Columbia and Western Canada. By deploying a new warehouse management system (WMS) and mobile computers, the company was able to move away from paper-based systems and increase productivity by more than 10%.

The company’s previous paper-based system had largely relied on the company’s lengthy employee tenure, which averaged almost 20 years. The “tribal knowledge” of these long-term employees was invaluable to the warehouse’s overall efficiency. However, as technologies advanced and as new employees began to transition in, Chalifour looked to implement a full WMS (PathGuide Technologies, pathguide.com) that would not only fully track all warehouse materials, but support the technology needed to increase efficiency. The company selected a WMS, coupled it with new mobile computers (Intermec, intermec.com) and printers, and saw productivity increase almost instantly.

“Our long-term goal was to grow the business and be one of the leading suppliers in the industry, and we saw our warehouse system as one of the top areas where we needed to operate at a higher level,” said Steve Cain, information technology manager for Chalifour. “We got as far as we could with the paper system—there’s only so much you can do in terms of accuracy—so we knew implementing a full WMS and a new handheld system was one of the building blocks that was required for us to get to the next level.”

Because of the seasonal nature of their industry, Chalifour looked to implement the new system during the slower winter season, with rollout complete by the spring busy season. The company also strategically chose to implement the new system during the 2008 recession.

“The whole world was already down 20% to 30% by the end of the year, so we decided while we are down anyway, let’s take advantage of the slow time to increase our efficiency,” said Susan Robinson, president and CEO of IRLY Distributors, which was acquired by Chalifour’s parent company. “Also, instead of being forced to lay off any of our workforce, we were able to use them in the roll-out process and re-allocate their time to this project.”

According to Cain, the choice of hardware was based on the touchscreen, scanning range, ruggedness and weight of the units. Once the system was rolled out, the time from purchase to implementation was six months, with initial staff adoption time taking a few hours. “We actively spent time training leaders from every department, so that we’d have experts in each area to help with the transition,” said Robinson. “Before, training on the manual system would take anywhere from a month or so for complete proficiency, but now it takes about one day for them to learn the basics before we can leave them on their own.”

Before the change, the company did about 2,000 to 2,500 transactions a day, with a busy day maxing at about 2,700, according to Robinson. “This summer we are able to handle nearly 3,200 transactions a day with a noticeable reduction in errors.”

The ruggedness of the mobile computers has also benefitted the company. “One of the units was accidentally placed in a bucket with 6 inches of water for more than 20 minutes and it held up just fine,” said Kevin Kearns, supply chain project manager. “And, outside of this extreme case, on a daily basis we can rely on them to do extremely well indoors or out.”

Robinson cited a few strategic decisions that played a huge role in contributing to the project’s success. “Instead of experiencing great loss during 2008 as most companies did during the low-point in the recession, we didn’t miss a beat and 2009 sales were exactly where they were the previous year,” said Robinson.


About the Author

Josh Bond, Contributing Editor
Josh Bond is Senior Editor for Modern, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.

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