Too long, indeed, for the generations of consumers who cut their teeth on McDonald's, and whose idea of home cooking is listening to the drone of a microwave. Cash on demand, news on demand, entertainment on demand - the way to keep consumers happy these days is to give them what they want, when they want it. Empty shelves won't do. Retailers know it, as do their suppliers.
This is putting increasing pressure on both parties to implement fast flow-through at every juncture of product distribution. Cost savings is another huge incentive. Why let inventory pass from hand to hand, only to have it gather dust in a warehouse, when the same product could be on a truck headed for Sam's Club? In fact, why warehouse at all?
Sound familiar? Then at one time or another you've probably considered using cross-docking to reduce inventory and streamline your product flow. In its purest form, cross-docking is exactly as it sounds: the movement of product across a dock from one vehicle to another, with no intermediate storage or warehousing. Depending on customer requirements, some methods focus on pallet quantities, others on consolidation and case/partial pallet level movement, and still others on case-level distribution. And since speed and accuracy is the name of the game, bar code scanners, radio frequency data communications terminals and electronic data interchanges replace pad and pencil. According to Ken Battista, senior vice president of business development for the Power Group, large stand-alone flow-through facilities hum to the receive-ship, receive-ship tempo of cross-docking 'round the clock. "They're essentially large truck docks rather than your more conventional warehouse/distribution center," he noted.
But, he adds, you don't ordinarily find them handling food. "In fact, I can't think of one true cross-docking facility that is food-oriented by design," he noted. Instead, he said, the food industry is more likely to cross-dock on a selective basis, and usually from a company warehouse or distribution center. "If hot dogs are in season, demand may be such that the product comes in one door and goes out the other," he explained. "But the reality is that inventory turns in the food industry aren't nearly as great as in other industries."
If nothing else, the buying practices of large grocery chains virtually guarantee that warehousing will figure into the distribution equation. "Grocers don't buy by the pallet or or case. They buy by the truck load."
The chicken-egg syndrome has also been a persistent source of inertia. Just as retailers require a critical mass of cross-dock suppliers to justify the cost of reconfiguring their distribution centers (and integrating conveyors, bar codes and buying systems into their operations) so do suppliers require a critical mass of customers to justify their investment in bar codes, cross-dockable unit loads, deployable cases and so on. As matters stand, few manufacturers are equipped to efficiently create store order quantities.
"I don't know of any food company providing mixed pallets that are shipped directly to stores, at least not in a systematic manner." Schaffer said. "And most companies wouldn't have the manpower or equipment."
For this reason, cross-docking continues to generate a lot of discussion among food industry members. And there is plenty to talk about. For starters, there are seemingly endless variations of cross-docking, each with unique benefits and limitations.
The common denominator is the superior information/communication technology required to keep the right product moving in the right quantities and at the right time.
Most operations rely on integrated warehouse management systems (WMS) -- including bar-code technology, radio frequency, advanced shipping notification and electronic data interchange -- to ensure that the required information is accurately exchanged at all points in the supply chain -- and in real time -- from purchasing to final sale.
Anyone interested in WMS software will find no shortage of options -- there are literally hundreds -- though many contain the same basic modules. For purposes of cross-docking, the package should at least feature some form of inbound-scheduling capability that can note the arrival of incoming goods and then assign those items to meet outbound orders. In addition to a cross-docking module, many WMS programs contain a receiving module for assigning bar code labels to inventory, and for scanning the labels with a radio frequency data communication (RFDC) terminal to relay data to the WMS. In the event that storage is required, a storage/putaway module locates, verifies and marks an open storage location for a given pallet or case once it has been scanned with the lift truck's RFDC terminal. With the WMS linking inventory and location, product then can be easily located when needed. After the host computer sends orders to the WMS, a picking module prioritizes orders and picking activities, and then verifies pick accuracy so that inventory data bases remain up to date. Finally, a shipping module generates packing and shipping labels when orders arrive at the shipping station.
Some forms of cross-docking, such as flow-through receiving and shipping, bypass staging and instead employ automated materials-handling equipment, such as conveyors and sorters, to mix and move product to a designated shipping dock. This equipment is typically controlled by Warehouse Control Systems (WCS) software, which use information from the WMS to direct the sorter's programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to move product. The fly in the oinment is that most WMS packages require tweaking in order to interface effectively with sorter controls - a potentially costly and complex proposition. On the other hand, "We're really not inventing the wheel anymore," Schaffer said. "Integrators, WMS providers and sorting equipment suppliers have all been down this road before and often times they've been down it together."