Corporate Express Canada automates supply chain

The Canadian arm of a global business-to-business office supplier says the recent implementation of a $200,000 wireless data capture system has enabled it to offer better customer service, reduce labour costs and improve accuracy of orders.


Express Canada, which has 19 offices here including Calgary, Montreal and St. John’s, started outfitting its eight distribution centres with Intermec Technologies Corp.’s CK30 rugged mobile computers and wireless access points to automate its delivery processes last December.

Prior to the implementation, Corporate Express used a manual system that required loaders to put the cartons on the truck in the same sequence as the paper manifest. With 60 to 80 customers’ orders per truck on any given day, loaders were constantly shuffling and sorting the cartons to get them in the correct order. More time was also required on the driver’s end as they would have to check the sequencing on the manifest each morning before they headed out.

The primary reason for implementing the devices was to increase customer service levels, said Corporate Express Canada vice-president of operations, Steve Edmonds. “The drivers would have a manifest that was not always correct or was not showing the right number of cartons in the truck,” said Edmonds. “When you show up in front of a customer, you want everything to be neat and clean with no questions asked.”

With the new systems in place, it doesn’t matter where cartons are located in the truck, said Edmonds. Loaders now scan the label on the carton to tell the back-end system where the item is located on the truck and then print the manifest, he added. Edmonds estimates this saves drivers a half an hour each day. It has also allowed Corporate Express Canada to cut two full-time loading staff and reduce cartons left on dock, which refers to the number of undelivered cartons, to near zero.

Getting the right product to the right customer the first time makes a big difference to business, said Intermec Canada solutions sales consultant Jim Thring. “You have a lot of data on what your customer has ordered but you need visibility as it moves through your warehouse or delivery mechanism,” said Thring. “You have these checks and balances to make sure the right things are happening all along the way.”

Rena Granofsky, senior partner, IT at retail consulting firm J.C. Williams Group said automation of business processes is one of the key drivers of mobile device technology. “(Manual processes) tie up valuable employee time,” said Granofsky. “(Rugged mobile computers) optimize what employees are doing in the store. (Employees) are more visible to customers and more available for customer service.”

While Corporate Express doesn’t operate in the same capacity as other office suppliers that have a retail presence like Staples or Grand & Toy, the same benefits apply in a warehouse/distribution setting. Thring said the CK30 is targeted to the warehouse space and is also popular with the government, particularly the defense department. “If you think of industries that have any type of supply chain or warehouse management type function that’s where these devices would play primarily,” said Thring. Other major vendors in this space include Psion and Symbol, said Granofsky. IDC Canada currently does not track shipments of ruggedized handhelds like Intermec’s CK30.

Corporate Express Canada’s in-house IT department had to rewrite the interface programs for the terminals. With the number of mobile workers on the rise, application vendors are writing programs specifically for these devices, said Thring. “They’re reconfiguring their screens and their applications to work on a smaller form factor,” he said, adding some companies run in emulation mode or make the device look like it’s part of the big computer so the user is sending commands back and forth to the application.

The project also involved putting a complete Wi-Fi network in its distribution centres. In the St. John’s, Nfld., warehouse, for example, there are a couple of Wi-Fi antennas which are connected to servers in Montreal through Corporate Express Canada’s wide area network (WAN). In terms of security the network 128-bit encrypted and all of the antennas are locked down.

Starting later this year, Corporate Express Canada will look at using the same devices to automate its receiving processes, which is currently done manually with sheets of paper, said Edmonds. The devices will be programmed to scan and receive orders using the same guns and network, except on a different shift. “You load at night you receive in the morning,” he said. “We can use the same guns for two purposes.”

While Edmonds is impressed with RFID technology, he said it isn’t advanced enough yet for warehouses like his. “The problem is it won’t go through metal or water,” he said. “As soon as you get a jumble of things in a box you can’t see all the tags.”

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