Warehouse Technologies Ease Growing Pains

By Alex Kirsch

Last year, Lake City, Florida-based HUB Industrial Supply asked itself a tough question: How do we maintain growth and protect our business into the future?

After several years of strong expansion in the industrial goods supply space, we needed to scale up for growth. However, as we grew, we realized we were drowning in paperwork, so we took a step back and looked at our warehouse with a critical eye. We found that our paper-based system of manual recordkeeping was keeping us from properly defining and quantifying problem areas. We acknowledged that it was time to streamline our warehouse and make our processes more visible.

HUB operates in a very competitive industrial supply space, but we have carved out a unique position versus larger suppliers by building our strategy on two key concepts: exceptional customer service and just-in-time delivery. These elements allowed us to differentiate ourselves from other suppliers and helped us grow over a 20-year period into a $25 million business.

Holding too much inventory can be expensive, but running out of the inventory a business needs can cost even more. We proved that customers can safely reduce their onsite inventory because we will deliver products when they are needed. Once that trust has been built, customers feel confident they can reduce their stockpiles and put their inventory money toward more profitable uses.

As we evaluated our processes, such as handling new products and managing multiple inventory item bins, we saw much room for improvement and efficiency. Our manual systems were still coping with shipment volumes, but we knew that they would eventually become a roadblock to future growth if we didn’t introduce a more modern and competitive approach. We looked at various warehouse tools and decided that a fully featured warehouse management system (WMS) made sense.

Our challenge was not only to solve existing problems but to use a WMS as an investment in the company’s future. Paper and pencil had gotten us this far, but to reach our next milestone, we needed to automate.

Before deciding on a vendor, we had to focus on our requirements. These included the ability to achieve greater efficiency, upgrade receiving and picking accuracy, and improve employee accountability and time management in the warehouse.

For example, one of our biggest differentiators is the promise of same-day shipping on any catalog items ordered by 6 p.m. Although we were meeting that deadline using our manual system, we believed a WMS would give us more confidence as we expand.

Gaining visibility into warehouse operations was another key goal. We knew how many workers were in the warehouse and how much inventory was going in and out, but it was hard to quantify where our money was being spent. Was it in picking items to be shipped? Cycle counting? Receiving? We couldn’t improve efficiency without a benchmark.

Selecting the Right Partner

Armed with the knowledge gained through due diligence prior to purchase, we found a partner with a flexible system that could scale to meet our future growth while reducing our dependence on manual systems: PathGuide Technologies and its Latitude WMS platform.

The deployment process went smoothly, without delays or headaches. Latitude is user-friendly, and we trained our employees in one to two weeks.

We noticed almost immediately after deploying this system that our efficiency and accuracy had improved, while the put-away and picking processes were much more streamlined. The system’s built-in metrics also helped us establish a more realistic and manageable level of employee accountability.

With the WMS now fully up and running, we can access intelligent inventory management tools that position us to sustain growth, while maintaining our customer service. We have seen significant efficiency gains: It’s now common, among other things, for employees to walk the warehouse and simultaneously pick up multiple orders, eliminating the need to backtrack.

What we like best about using a WMS is the visibility it provides into individual employee metrics, as well as giving us full transparency into warehouse operations. That means we don’t have to rely on the subjective opinions of managers to know what’s going on under the hood. We now have the data to back up assumptions and deal with issues.

The bottom line: Installing a WMS has helped us exceed our business goals, while staying focused on customer service and our just-in-time guarantee. We’re doing more with less labor, and our customers are happy.

Alex Kirsch, vice president of technology for Florida-based HUB Industrial Supply, a provider of consumable products used in industry, has more than 16 years of experience in enterprise-level network administration, network security and IT management. He can be reached at [email protected].

Photo of Alex Kirsch, Hub Industrial Supply