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Wed 1 Jun 2005 04:00 AM

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Truck stop

As distribution centres grow in size, scheduling deliveries, and then directing the trucks to the right bay, becomes an increasingly complex task. Yard management solutions automate this process, however, optimising the traffic flow at the DC.

|~|Murden,-Andy,-european-busi.jpg|~||~|The difficulty of keeping track of containers in a distribution centre (DC) yard is amply demonstrated by a tale told by Andy Murden, from when he worked for a supermarket chain in the UK. The DC handled 150 of its own trucks a day, along with numerous third party deliveries, and as such the odd container would get overlooked. One that did held returned foods, and it sat on the yard for over three months before someone happened to wonder what was inside.

“When we opened the door, everything inside had gone bad and the smell was absolutely awful,” recalls Murden, who is now European business consultant manager at SSA Global.

Few DCs in the Middle East are as big as this one, but companies here can still benefit from better yard management, both in terms of keeping track of what goods they have in trailers and also from scheduling the arrival of trucks more efficiently. This is key to achieving a better flow of goods inside the warehouse, particularly for cross-docking, and it can also generate cost savings in terms of better utilisation of containers, trailers, equipment and staff.

At present, only the very largest players in the local market have a yard management system in place. Demand is beginning to emerge, however, in line with the wider growth of the local logistics sector and the increasing size of DCs in the Middle East. “The take-up for this type of solution is picking up with the number of trucks and vehicles increasing in this part of the world, along with the increasing movement of products,” says Tarek Saoud, director, supply network solutions, Span-SNS. “It is nowhere near where warehouse management systems (WMSs) are in terms of demand, but it is a growing addition to that product, which will quickly start to find its place in this market.”

In the main, most local players are relying on paper-based processes to both schedule the arrival of trucks and to then guide them within the DC yard. This is partly a reflection of the limited adoption of technology in the local supply chain at present, and also the fact that few DCs have very large yards, so trucks are generally directed by hand. “Most people start off with a spreadsheet,” comments Murden.

“When the driver arrives it is all manual and paper, and someone shouts the guy across the yard to the bay. However, when you get into a large DC environment, with multiple dock doors and large volumes of vehicles coming in and out, this is where IT takes over and automates this process.”

“Even if you have a high volume of vehicles coming into a smaller DC, [yard management] would also be useful,” he adds. “Really, it is the control of the inbound and outbound vehicles that the system is doing.”

The yard management solution is able to do this as it has visibility of the contents of the trucks in the yard or on the way. Once a truck arrives, the system first checks that the vehicle has an appointment in the WMS. It then interrogates the purchase order to find the contents of the trailer before deciding where the truck should go to in the yard — either one or a series of docking doors or to a parking bay — based on rules drawn up in the system. The staff inside the warehouse are also alerted to the arrival of the truck and which docking bay it has been directed to either by wireless devices or using an arrivals screen, so that they can get into position with the right equipment.

The rules drawn up to decide what to do with the arriving truck will depend on the nature of the operations; however, they are likely to include ensuring that trailers are taken to docking doors next to where the goods onboard are stored inside the warehouse. Other examples could include ensuring that frozen and chilled goods are offloaded before ambient ones, or that trailers holding out-of-stock items or urgent deliveries are given priority over everything else.

The system ensures that all the drivers, both those just visiting the depot and shunter drivers working there fulltime moving trailers around, know what they have to do. The instructions can either be sent to a handheld device wirelessly or printed out on a piece of paper. Either way though, the drivers have clear instructions based on the most efficient movement for the trailer. “Instead of the drivers deciding what they want to do in the yard, the system optimises their movements,” says Murden. “If there are shunter drivers that hide or try to do their own thing, those days are gone with this system. It also assesses where they are, what they are doing, how long it took them, so you can get full performance reporting from it,” says Murden.

For cross-docking, a yard management system is also key, as the system needs to find adjacent empty doors, as well as alerting a yard jockey to move an empty trailer into position. “The system will understand that it has got a cross-dock, so it needs to find two empty doors and a trailer to bring to that other door,” says Murden. “It can also link movements together as well, so it will not let a driver move a trailer if another one needs to be moved first, for instance.”

A yard management solution also allows containers to be used for storage without any danger of the contents being forgotten, as the system will flag up goods that need to be moved because of previous plans or because they are nearing the expiry date, for instance. A graphical representation of the yard — and the trailers within it — in the system also means that the supervisor can just click on an icon to find out what is in the unit, as well as other records, such as when it was put there and by whom.||**|||~||~||~|Holding goods in the yard — for just a few hours or for much longer periods — can be a valuable option, as the goods do not then need to be unloaded into the warehouse until they are needed. This is particularly advantageous for cross-docking operations, but it can also benefit other companies by relieving some of the strain on crowded warehouses.
“They can plan not to take a container in — and perhaps leave it in the shipping area if they have a week of free time in that area — and then, when deliveries start, they can put it in the uplift,” says Raj Karakkat, project manager at ePeople Middle East, the local implementation partner for HighJump Software.

This type of tactic, however, requires good forward planning and visibility over what goods are going to be delivered into the warehouse, and when, over the coming weeks. Paper-based processes often fail to provide this, as there is not a sufficient flow of information between the various departments involved in arranging the delivery.

“The people in the shipping department will have the bills of loading and all of those kinds of documents, including an expected date of arrival for the things coming in… but most of the time, they do not pass them on until the end of the month,” says Karakkat. “Indeed, it is probably only when the warehouse people ask for the documents that they actually get them, so they do not get any information that they can plan with,” he continues.

“However, if you have a system where you can enter this kind of information, then the people in the warehouse can see it and then plan for it, as they can see that a container is arriving in two days’ time, for instance.”

With this kind of visibility, there is time to find room in the warehouse for the goods, if needs be, which then means that they can be offloaded as soon as they arrive. This then means that the trailer does not need to be used to hold goods in the yard for days just because of a lack of planning, which then increases the utilisation of the equipment.

“When somebody hires trailers, which a lot of people do, they often do not realise how long they have had them on hire for. Furthermore, in some instances, they do not need to hire more trailers, they just need to utilise the trailers they have in a better manner, which can be a huge saving,” comments Murden.

Implementing a yard management solution from a technological perspective is a straightforward process, as not much data needs to pass between it and the WMS. The biggest challenge therefore is defining the business rules and also mapping the yard in order to create the graphic representation and to then plan where trailers can be parked, all of which can take up to a few months for the biggest yards. Time and motion studies also need to be undertaken to ensure that proper planning can take place.

“If you know how much time you are going to take to offload a container, you can put a standard in the system, which is a big advantage for scheduling a full day of eight or nine hours,” says Karakkat. “You can also give an exact time for the parts to be at your gate… so that within 10 or 15 minutes they can be available, and you do not break up your number of containers per day… However, these timings need to be monitored, because as the loads change, the containers will take more or less time to unload.”

This kind of planning also requires cooperation down the supply chain, so that suppliers send out goods not just so that they will arrive on the right day, but ideally at the right hour as well. “You need to have all of your suppliers in line, so that when you make an order you will know how long it will take to reach your dock,” says Karakkat.

“It is not just the vendor though, but all of the people involved — the shipping companies, the transport companies, you need all of them in order — otherwise all of the planning is going to be wasted... However, if you have the process streamlined from end to end, supplier to customer, then there can be huge savings,” he adds.

Yet, while the planning can be undertaken with pinpoint precision, life is rarely so controllable. A traffic jam in the centre of Dubai, for instance, or a flat tyre can throw all of the plans out of the window unless there is a bit of flexibility and leeway for the inevitable problems. “Delays are always going to happen, that’s a fact of life, but you need to reschedule based on the business rules,” says Murden. “For instance, if this truck is late by more than 30 minutes get a manual override before [unloading it].”

However, at least with an automated process in place, it is possible to quickly see the impact of handling the truck in a different time slot and to then make an informed decision. Would unloading now delay a more important shipment later on, or does the delayed truck need to be given priority in order to fulfil an outgoing delivery, for instance? These are the questions that need to be asked and answered in realtime, while the DC continues to operate at full pace with yet more trucks arriving. Clearly, for large DCs in particular, there is no way of achieving this other than through an automated system.||**||

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