Intra-company visibility

With today’s technology, visibility to work in process and finished goods inventory within a company is typically accomplished using a central information system where the additions, movements and consumption of inventory are tracked.  The points where errors are typically introduced in these systems are related to having the procedures and trained workforce in place to reliably update the system of record at these key touchpoints.

    • In many cases the movement and consumption touchpoints are not located where data can be easily entered – a factory floor production line for example.
    • The workforce responsible for physically moving the inventory is typically not trained or expected to perform the data entry function.
    • Data entry can be even more onerous and error prone if item-level or lot-level tracking is also required.

As a result, timely and accurate updates to the inventory information system are not always made. The information it contains therefore degrades over time and may not accurately represent the physical inventory on hand.  Manual labor-intensive cycle counts must therefore be performed periodically to update the central information system of record with the actual inventory on hand.

There may also be missed opportunities to “error proof” key material movement touchpoints where incorrect inventory movement, recalled items/lots, inventory  processed out of sequence, or expired inventory can be detected. Detecting and correcting these types of errors immediately at the point they occur can significantly reduce the exception handling and rework processing otherwise required to correct them after the fact.

Inter-company visibility

The inventory visibility problem is much more challenging in business-to-business supply chains scenarios where suppliers take responsibility for ensuring inventory availability at their customer companies. In many such cases, service level agreement-based contracts are in place that mandate penalties if inventory is not available on time.

It may not be practical or possible for a supplier to establish and maintain the electronic linkage needed to receive real-time inventory availability information for each customer company.  Even if such a linkage existed, like the intra-company inventory visibility case, there is still no guarantee that timely and accurate updates to the inventory on hand will always be made by the customer’s staff.  When inventory shortfalls occur, the supplier may be responsible for and incur the expenses and overheads of expedited shipments to meet their customer’s needs.

As a result, a supplier may maintain more inventory than would otherwise be needed to ensure its availability. There are capital and floor space costs associated with this extra inventory that in some vendor managed inventory and consignment sales scenarios are born by the supplier. The extra inventory also increases the likelihood of additional returns and expired or recalled product exception processing, further increasing the supplier’s costs.

To mitigate the risk of running out of inventory, suppliers sometime deploy field staff to manually monitor the inventory levels at their customers to ensure compliance with the service level agreements.  The costs of this field staff are significant and may limit the market that can be served by a suppler to only larger customers due to the high per-customer support costs.

Attributes where inventory visibility is most needed

Examples of items for which inventory visibility is critical include:

    • Vendor managed inventory or consignment sales where overstock and under-stock items may have a significant financial impact on the supplier company
    • Items with high variability of consumption rate which makes it difficult and expensive to ensure inventory availability by maintaining an overstock of the items
    • Items with many different SKUs but only a small number of each SKU needs to be on hand at any point in time – this increases the likelihood of running out of a specific SKU
    • Items which an out-of-stock event has an associated large cost/penalty – example, the entire production line shuts down if an item is not available
    • Perishable items with limited shelf-life and where the order of consumption is important
    • Items that are subject item-level or lot-level recall

How can RFID and barcode scanning help?

A RFID or barcode scanning system can augment the existing inventory tracking systems of record by automatically detecting and reporting the movement and consumption of inventory – thereby eliminating the need for manual data entry at points in the supply chain.  Simply moving an item from one location to another during the normal material processing flow is all that’s needed for the system to track the inventory.

Timely and accurate replenishment orders can be automatically generated based on policies configured in the system for each item. The quantity of inventory maintained for any given item (and the associated floor space) can therefore be reduced without increasing the risk of out-of-stock events.

Scanning touchpoints can be located on the company’s manufacturing floor, supply rooms, warehouses, or any other location within a company.  For inter-company inventory visibility scenarios,  scanning touchpoints can be installed in remote locations at a supplier’s customer facilities.  In the latter case, the remote scanning equipment connects with the central Spotlight server over the Internet.

Depending on the inventory items being tracked, individual items may be tagged and scanned, or in the case of small parts and other consumable supplies, reusable storage bins may be scanned as parts bins are emptied. In either case, the supplier receives the inventory visibility information needed in real time to immediately create replenishment orders or take other actions as appropriate.

RFID technology can allow “hands free” detection of inventory movement.  For examples, RFID portals can be configured at choke points to automatically detect the movement of items between one physical zone and another with no operator interaction required. RFID-based kiosks can installed to scan reusable parts bins as they’re emptied and placed in a recycle location. Minimal or no staff training is required for either the company or their client customers to use the system.  Barcode scanning, while not completely hands free, is a simple operation that also requires very little training or data entry skills.

“Error proofing” logic can be added to the system at key touchpoints in the supply chain.  For example, an alarm can be signaled immediately if an item is moved to an incorrect location or an expired, recalled, out of order item is scanned at one of the touchpoints.  Alerting the staff to correct errors immediately at the time they occur can significantly reduce the exception processing and related overhead that otherwise results to correct the errors later in the workflow.  Real time metrics and key performance indicators are also available from the tracking system to support continuous process improvement.

In summary, RFID or barcode scanning can augment existing inventory tracking systems of record by automatically detecting and reporting the movement and consumption of inventory.  All the features and capabilities described above are available for both the intra and inter company scenarios.  Depending on a client’s specific inventory visibility needs, S3Edge can deliver the turn-key tracking solution needed.

Business Benefits

Expands the market for VMI and consignment sales

RFID and barcode scanning can allow VMI and consignment sales suppliers to meet the needs of smaller customers.

Reduces labor for cycle counts and inventory monitoring

Significantly reduces the need for manual inventory monitoring and cycle counts.

Reduces expedited shipments and exception processing

Real-time inventory visibility allows timely and accurate replenishment orders.

Reduces staff training and labor for data entry

RFID and barcode scanning replace much of the manual data entry.

Enables ``error proofing`` the supply chain

Allows errors detected at key points in the supply change to be immediately corrected.

Reduces inventory and floor space required

Allows smaller quantities of inventory to be maintained on hand without the risk of stockout

Example Inventory Visibility and Replenishment Projects

Do you have an inventory visibility or automatic replenishment project you’d like to discuss?