For more than 20 years, APC, Inc., has built a reputation as a high-quality provider of blood-based protein supplements for use in animal food. A division of the Lauridsen Group, Inc., the Ankeny, Iowa-based company operates six facilities in the United States, as well as several others in Canada and overseas, providing a key ingredient to both agricultural and domestic animal feed manufacturers around the world.
Unfortunately, the company’s manual shipping processes were costing it both time and money. APC knew that it needed an automated, bar-code-based system to improve shipping efficiency and reduce its data entry workload, but finding a solution that would integrate with its existing MAPICS enterprise resource planning software proved to be a challenge.
APC had no way to automatically enter shipping data into the MAPICS Customer Order Management (COM) module. When product was shipped using the manual process, employees had to key enter redundant data for every pallet in each lot into MAPICS (now part of Infor Global Solutions). Since the company generates more than one million inventory transactions per year in MAPICS, that data entry took up a considerable amount of time. Because the process was so slow, most shipments (especially time-sensitive international orders) were recorded on paper forms and then entered into MAPICS hours later, often by the plant secretary.
“You’re keying the same information in twenty times,” says Steve Harper, Vice President of Information Technology at APC. “It’s easy to make a mistake, and really nothing was changing other than the last character in the batch lot number. When you have close to a million of these in the course of a year, it’s really time consuming.”
This inefficient, error-prone process resulted in overtime charges for the data entry, and left open the possibility that product could be shipped without being properly recorded and billed.
A Lengthy Search
APC needed a real-time data collection interface that could work with its existing MAPICS COM transactions, but finding a solution for its shipping woes wasn’t easy.
“We had to do a lot of research, because we could not find anybody at the time who could integrate the actual shipping transaction from the MAPICS Customer Order Management module into the data collection system,” Harper says. “It seems like a transaction that most companies would offer, but they really didn’t because of the fact that MAPICS can get kind of complex. Each user, each warehouse, each item and each customer can have a different set of rules applied to them.”
APC put together a project team that included Harper; project manager Tara Barbatti; manufacturing superintendent Ryan Olson; plant manager Ralph Olson; IT staffers Bruce Schimmel and Hari Mosali; Kelly Jordison from the finance department; and Julie Lynch from customer service. The team reported to Vice President of Operations Larry Hoelting.
After a lengthy search, APC was able to find only one solution that could automate the shipping process and integrate with both the MAPICS system and the company’s laboratory management system without requiring back-end modifications: QuikTrac I-Series data collection software from Integrated Barcoding Systems of Adrian, Mich. In conjunction with bar code label printers and wireless, hand-held bar code scanners, APC staff can now automatically scan shipments of its supplements into the MAPICS system, saving hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in labor.
QuikTrac didn’t require any host modifications, isn’t affected by MAPICS updates, and could be installed quickly, all of which made it the most appealing solution for APC’s shipping operations. “It was also the only product that provided true, real-time connectivity into MAPICS,” Harper says.
“QuikTrac is a screen integration tool, so there’s no custom coding or scripting of the hand-held devices,” says Andy Jacobs, President of Integrated Barcoding Systems.
Harper’s team selected APC’s Boone, Iowa, facility as the site for the initial installation because of its proximity to corporate headquarters, and the enthusiasm of both plant manager Ralph Olson and plant superintendent Ryan Olson for the bar coding system.
“We decided to go with that plant because we knew for this project we had to have manufacturing personnel who were solidly behind it, and they were really pushing for it,” Harper says. “In turn, they got the other manufacturing sites excited about it.”
Once the Boone site was up and running for a few months, APC rolled the system out to its other facilities at one- or two-month intervals. The programmer analyst and manufacturing superintendent from the project team organized the training at each site. APC has deployed QuikTrac at all six of its facilities, and hopes to expand the system to its Canadian joint-venture locations in the future. APC’s sister company, Proliant, Inc., has installed the solution at two of its plants as well.
Manual Data Entry Eliminated
APC ships its protein supplements in bags, stacked 20 to 40 per pallet. As product is bagged and palletized, workers apply pre-printed bar code labels on the outside of the shrink wrap. The labels are produced using Zebra Technologies Corp. printers and label software from T.L. Ashford. Workers scan the labels with an Intermec Technologies 2435 wireless computer before the pallets are moved to a storage location in the warehouse.
The pallets are later moved to a staging area for shipping as orders are filled, and the labels are scanned again as the shipment is loaded onto the truck.
“We had to work quite a bit with Integrated Barcoding Systems to continually tweak the system,” Harper says. “As I stated earlier, each user, company, and warehouse in MAPICS can have different defaults set up. We had to make sure everybody was doing things the exact same way, and we also had to program for any possible variation that could come up with an error message. If we didn’t do that, then the data collection system would not be synched up with MAPICS anymore.”
With the addition of bar coding, APC has been able to cut cost and time out of its shipping operations. The faster, more accurate process has reduced keystroke errors by 80% and shipping transaction time by 66%, helping the company achieve a return on investment for five manufacturing facilities in less than one year.
“We’ve accomplished what we were striving for: The reduction in errors and the improvement in processing time,” Harper says. “That’s been very significant for us.”
According to Harper, the company will save more than $10,000 per year in data entry labor alone. And APC won’t have to worry any longer that product was shipped without being invoiced, either. Avoiding even a single error of that type could save the company almost $60,000.
In addition, MAPICS COM shipping transaction training time has been reduced by 50% thanks to the user navigation paths in QuikTrac. More timely and accurate processes have also saved the company thousands of dollars in missed shipments and logistics fees.
“Before bar coding, it was really time consuming to process a shipment, create a bill of lading, and create a manifest for the trucker,” says APC Senior Programmer Analyst Hari Mosali. “We used to have to hand write that information for the drivers, and that was never the proper way to do it. Now, as we are loading the truck we are scanning the pallet. By the time the scanning is done, the data is sent into our custom bill of lading programs, and everything is there on the printer.”
APC also had to integrate QuikTrac with its Interpec laboratory information management system (LIMS), which APC uses to track and manage the test samples it takes from each batch of product. The QuikTrac system feeds information into both MAPICS and LIMS so that the samples can be associated with the correct batch.
“The minute you scan a pallet, it goes into MAPICS, the system writes that information into an Access database,” says Mosali. “We had to come up with a way for a supervisor at the end of a shift to push a function key on the bar code scanner so the interface would read this Access database file and write all the production into the LIMS system.”
Based on the improvements in its shipping operations, APC hopes to expand its use of the system. “We don’t use the MAPICS staging procedure right now,” Harper says. “It’s just one more transaction that we’d have to have our personnel enter into MAPICS. Now that we do have the data collection system, though, it’s something that we’ll probably look at in 2006. We’re also looking at using true inventory locations in our warehouses.”
The QuikTrac screen integration solution has made manual data entry a thing of the past, leaving APC better prepared than ever to meet the needs of its customers.