Computer Tools Make Tracking Pallets a Point and Click Away
Tracking Pallets: Off-the-shelf tracking software gives pallet companies involved in third-party management and pallet users a new tool to improve management, retrieval and recovery programs.
By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 7/1/1999
One of the four tenets of the new pallet registry being established by the National Wood Pallet and Container Association is that owners of proprietary pallets must be able to prove that they are tracking their pallets.
What better way to demonstrate a company’s pallet management efforts than simply to turn on a computer, suggests a vendor of pallet and container tracking software products.
With the emergence of off-the-shelf tracking software, pallet companies involved in third-party management and savvy pallet users alike have a new tool to improve the management of retrieval and recovery programs.
Tracking software is a powerful tool that can help reduce record-keeping labor and increase the accuracy of the records. Among numerous other features, the programs are designed to readily generate transaction records and operations and executive reports. The software can be easily configured to accommodate numerous types of reusable pallets and containers and numerous trading partners. They are flexible enough for a wide range of pallet user and third- party applications, from grocery to building products. And frequently they can interface with a company’s "enterprise" computer management system, allowing data on pallet movement to be downloaded from a mainframe without the need to enter data into the tracking software.
Tracking software can help prevent the loss of reusable pallets and containers, translating into an increase in the number of trips. Increasing the number of trips reduces the cost per use, resulting in savings.
Tracking software also can be an ingredient in promoting the viability of a reusable pallet program to a hesitant prospective customer.
"We recommend pallet tracking software as a good product that pallet companies can tell their customers about in order to help them help themselves," said Stewart Richardson, president of PACTS Management Inc. in Cobourg, Ontario. "If a client is having trouble losing pallets or containers, or has concerns about investing in a more expensive and durable pallet and then having it leak out of his system, the software can be a big help." Tracking software also is an effective tool for pallet companies involved in third-party pallet management work, he noted.
Although only recently available in the U.S., his company’s tracking software products, PACTS™ and PACTS PLUS™, are based on over 12 years of successful installations in Canada.
"The list of users we have been dealing with is like a ‘who’s who’ of the Canadian grocery industry," said Victor Cheng, a partner at PACTS. He designed and has overseen the evolution of the successful pallet control software used by Canadian Pallet Council members such as Nabisco, Kraft Foods and Canada Safeway. U.S. customers include Super Valu, the nation’s largest grocery distributor, Bruno’s, a Southeastern chain, and the Australian operations of Parmalat Dairies, a major Italian-based dairy producer. However, PACTS™ is applicable for a wide range of industries, not just food distribution, Victor suggested. Ongweoweh Inc., a third-party pallet management and pallet brokering company, also is a PACTS customer.
While reusable packaging systems have become increasingly accepted in such applications as auto assembly, efforts to manage losses and optimize deployment are just developing. Reusable packaging loss was the theme of the International ISO Group’s ProMat99 display this year at Chicago. "Our theme was ‘Do you know where your containers are,’" recalled International ISO Group’s Terri Halpin, marketing director. "Most of the folks came up and laughed and said, ‘Heck no, I don’t know where they are.’ "
One customer that International ISO Group has been working with to help keep track of containers is the Mercury Marine Outboard manufacturing facility in Fond du Lac, Wis. "We were trying to go towards returnables for the same reasons as everybody else," said Scott Brutosky, manager of materials engineering at the Mercury plant, located about an hour north of Milwaukee. "We felt there were cost savings potential in eliminating expendables, but it was a struggle to figure out how to maintain the reusable container program."
Mercury’s plant manufactures outboard motors and has hundreds of in-bound suppliers. The company has tens of thousands of pieces of returnable containers and packaging, an investment of several million dollars. Prior to implementing the tracking program, it lost as much as 20% to 30% of its reusable containers annually. Mercury began using International ISO Group’s Container TRACKER™ program last October. "We are at the point now where we’re tracking about 30 different part numbers to about 12 different suppliers, back and forth," Scott said.
International ISO Group’s Container TRACKER program evolved out of the company’s work as consultants and trainers for firms seeking ISO certification. "When the ‘Big Three’ automotive companies announced they were going to adopt the QS 9000 program, we went up to Detroit and took training," Terri explained. A requirement of the program is that suppliers report damaged or lost reusable packaging.
(The pertinent requirement of the QS 9000 program states: The supplier shall establish and maintain documented procedures for the control of verification, storage and maintenance of customer-supplied products provided for incorporation into the supplies or for related activities. Any such product that is lost, damaged or is otherwise unsuited for use shall be recorded and reported to the customer. Verification by the supplier does not absolve the customer of the responsibility to provide acceptable product.)
Container TRACKER resulted from International ISO Group’s work with an automotive customer. "One of our big automotive clients was having a lot of trouble with containers he was getting from the ‘Big Three,’ " Terri said. Controlling containers of unfinished parts that went to other sites – for more manufacturing processes, such as dipping or polishing – was especially problematic. Some parts might go to three different locations before coming back to the main supplier, and the moves made it difficult to manage container loss. "Keeping track of containers had become a nightmare for them," Terri said.
While Container TRACKER was developed in response to the need of clients to achieve compliance with a particular portion of QS 9000 certification, the International ISO Group was quick to recognize the much broader need in industry for pallet and container tracking capability.
Scott came to a similar conclusion after attending a seminar sponsored by Michigan State University’s school of packaging last year. He noticed that other participants appeared to have the same concerns about controlling reusable containers and pallets as he did. "It didn’t seem like anybody had a tracking system," he recalled. "It didn’t seem like anyone knew what they had out there, even people who had been doing it for 20 years."
He noted, however, that Mercury’s need for container tracking did not seem as great as some of the major automotive plants. "We aren’t big enough to have a closed loop with lots of these suppliers like GM, Ford or the Georgetown, Kentucky Toyota plant, where ‘x’ amount of containers arrive full every day and ‘x’ amount of containers go back on the same truck," he said. "It makes it easy to track them with the same amount going in and out all the time. Because our volumes are so small, we can’t really do that."
The urgency for pallet and container tracking is being felt in a number of industries. "The need for effective pallet control is really now finally coming to the forefront by issues such as the development of pallet and container ownership laws in some states such as Washington, Arizona or Pennsylvania," Stewart observed. Large beverage and dairy companies have sought state legislation to prevent the loss of pallets and containers, he noted, but these remedies have missed the mark and are not likely to reduce losses. "Pallet and container owners often tend to be very passive about pallet management," said Stewart, "but then can revert to a confrontational approach when excessive losses finally reach executive attention. Tracking software such as PACTS can be a key component of a pro-active, successful management system that eliminates loss."
Ed Caryl, president of Alpha Software in Richmond, Va., suggested there are three components of effective tracking software.
The first point is simplicity of data collection in the field. "You don’t want to turn the trucker into a computer jock," said Ed. "We don’t want to have a lot of technical training on the floor."
The second key is speed of processing. "We don’t want to have to wait for days to get reports," he remarked. "Find software that is not complicated but that will readily provide sophisticated reports."
Third, the software should be versatile for data collection, allowing the use of radio frequency identification (RFID), bar codes or keying. "We looked at Windows one day and saw there are over a couple of hundred different printer drivers, so why can’t there be different inputs, all off of the same system?" Ed asked. "Can I do bar coding on one customer? Can I do gross quantities in and out on another customer, and can I do RFID on another customer? In our system you can do that."
Alpha plans to launch an off-the-shelf pallet and container tracking program by the third-quarter of 1999. It will be its first such program for pallet tracking although it has substantial experience in software products that track large quantities of relatively inexpensive items. Incorporated in 1992, Alpha has developed several programs for RFID for such applications as tracking fruit juice drums and protective gear worn by employees of an electric utility. In the latter case, linemen in the field were required by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to bring in their protective equipment for inspection after a specific period of time. Each item had to be tracked individually. (RFID tags that are affixed to each item vary widely in price according to their features; for a pallet and container tracking application, Ed estimated the RFID tags would cost under $3.50 each.) "This opened up a whole realm in data tracing programming for individual units," Ed said. When you’re dealing with 50,000 or 60,000 units with a history of 90-day tests, if you are doing this on a real-time basis over a network, that becomes a very challenging application."
Other considerations to look for in a tracking product would be same-day telephone support and flexibility. The best off-the-shelf programs are flexible enough to be used in many types of industries, ranging from automotive assembly to appliance distribution, or for different partners in the supply chain, such as carriers, manufacturers, or distributors. These users have somewhat different needs in tracking. Some programs have been designed to address only a narrow range of applications and therefore may have limitations that make them unsuitable for a potential customer’s specific pallet program. On the other hand, a program that may meet a customer’s needs may not fit the bill for his trading partners, making it difficult to reconcile an account.
Companies that rely on home-grown software for tracking pallets and containers may face the same limitations, and the results often can be disappointing. "The initial perception among programmers is that pallet tracking software is very simple," Victor said. As a result, some businesses prefer to tackle it cheaply on their own. "But then when people get into it, they gradually come to grips with all of the complications that take place," he added.
Different companies have different processes and even different languages to talk about pallet-related transactions and routines, Victor noted. "Even something as simple as ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ can mean different things to different businesses." Without common terms to discuss pallet transactions and routines, he suggested, reconciling accounts between companies can be extremely difficult.
Reconciliation account data between shipper, receiver, and carrier is a central function in pallet tracking and control. Many an hour has been wasted trying to reconcile pallet ledgers when parties used different purchase orders, reference numbers, or dates (shipping date or delivery date) for the same shipment. Of course, there frequently may be discrepancies in numbers shipped, too, or transactions may appear on one party’s ledger but not the other. New commercially available tracking programs, when used by both trading partners, often have the capability to identify discrepancies and to reconcile ledgers automatically.
Software providers are quick to emphasize, however, that while tracking software is an important tool, it cannot eliminate pallet loss. The software must be incorporated into an overall pallet and container management program. Stewart recently completed an installation at a major U.S. distributor. Only about 10% of the company’s training pertained to the tracking software; the other 90% addressed the pallet management processes and routines that would result in an effective program, such as correct pallet identification and the proper way to complete forms. Developing a common language in a large company, and among trading partners, can be an extremely important first step in closing the loop.
Terri agreed that attention to the entire pallet tracking and management effort is as important as the software. The software can identify imbalances with a trading partner, but someone still has to pick up the phone and know who to call to rectify it. "There are all sorts of things that can happen to these containers," Terri said wryly. "They can end up at home or in other parts of the plant. Sometimes they seem to grow legs and walk out the door."
The container tracking software is a critical tool in container control, but Scott emphasized the importance of the overall container management program. "We don’t just need the software," he said. "We also need a good process in place both for suppliers and at the shipping dock to make it all work well."
For example, a misunderstanding over container return numbers developed with a supplier when a particular type of returnable packaging was incorrectly identified in shipping records. "We were mis-naming the part here," Scott said. "They were telling us they were sending us a part other than the one we thought we were getting."
Mercury took a two-pronged approach to correct the misunderstanding. A common, patterned terminology was developed for naming the returnable packages. "We didn’t have any designated names at first," Scott recalled. "They came to be called whatever somebody happened to think they looked like at that time." The lack of a common terminology could easily lead to errors in inputting data, and the lack of a pattern for names of similar containers likewise created needless complexity.
Secondly, pictures were taken of all the returnable packages and will be posted at the shipping dock. "We don’t have a lot of turnover in staff," said Scott, "but people get sick or go on holidays, so we have a variety of people doing the shipping process." The pictures, in conjunction with a formal nomenclature for the containers, will help to ensure that Mercury is capturing the correct data.
The software is only one part of an effective control and management program, Scott reiterated. "You have to make sure your suppliers are doing what they’re supposed to and your internal people aren’t throwing things away, that they’re returning them to the dock and they’re labeling and separating things appropriately." In the near future he plans to reconfigure Mercury’s shipping-receiving dock to better facilitate returnable package sorting.
As for the software itself, Scott is quick to confirm its potential to improve the performance of Mercury’s returnable packaging program. "This could lead to some really significant savings with some items," he said. Scott has suggested several modifications to the software that International ISO Group has introduced as a result.
Scott views tracking software as a real resource for companies wrestling with the challenges of tracking reusable pallets and containers. "If you can get something off-the-shelf and you can put in place, it can save a lot," he said.
Off-the-shelf tracking software is still relatively new, but it seems like it can be an effective tool in managing reusable pallet and packaging programs for users and third-party managers alike. It can improve control and provide proof of tracking efforts for the NWPCA pallet registry.
What follows is more information on companies that offer pallet and container tracking software, included companies already mentioned above. Companies have been listed in alphabetical order.
Alpha Software expects to launch a commercial pallet and container tracking program based on RFID technology by the third-quarter of this year. The company was started in 1992 and has been involved with RFID data collection systems for several years. Applications have included tracking personal protective equipment for linemen to ensure compliance with OSHA inspection requirements, and transport and storage of fruit juice drums.
Advantages of its systems include the use of anti-collision tags (several can communicate simultaneously), the ability to interface with the Internet to process data on a real-time basis, and guaranteed uniqueness of each individual tag.
While conventional tracking programs might follow 20 pallets in from one site to another, the RFID approach would generate 20 different records, one for each pallet. This type of system provides a value-added feature for customers that want to link information to a specific pallet or for third-party companies that want to track how long each pallet is at a customer location. Alpha programs are designed to input data from RFID, bar code or "gross quantities."
For more information call (804) 272-1266.
International ISO Group
International ISO Group’s Container TRACKER software is the result of its consulting work with clients who sought QS 9000 certification in the automotive industry. Part of the certification process involved reporting damaged and missing containers, which clients were having difficulty managing and reporting. Container TRACKER solved the problem and in the process provided pallet, container and dunnage tracking capability.
Container TRACKER accommodates multiple customers, facilities and locations, tracking containers, pallets, dunnage, lids, totes, racks and trays. The program is easy to use, according to the vendor, and supports all container and dunnage combinations for all locations. Containers can be linked to part numbers in order to signal an alarm when inventory is below an acceptable level. Another interesting feature is the ability of the program to re-order new containers from a supplier automatically if inventory gets too low.
For more information call International ISO Group at (800) 476-3066 or visit their Web site at www.qs-iso9000.com.
PACTS Management Inc.
PACTS™ and PACTS Advanced™ software (PACTS stands for Pallet and Container Tracking System) are the two main offering of PACTS Management Inc. The company has more than 12 years experience in computer programming for effective pallet tracking and control. "Our programs are very user-friendly," said Stewart, "but can be as sophisticated as you need them to be."
He suggested that companies buy a tracking program that is easy to use and not overly complicated. Windows-based programs provide all the features required for managing pallets, containers and other devices for manufacturers, carriers and distributors, as well as third-party managers. His company also provides customized solutions and offers expert same-day telephone support.
PACTS Management also provides substantial operations support; its consultants are knowledgeable and experienced in pallet and container program diagnostics, management issues and implementation.
For more information, call (905) 377-0577 or visit their Web site at www.pactsmgt.com.
Sovereign Technologies Corporation
Sovereign Technologies Corporation (SovTech) is a leading developer and manufacturer of state-of-the-art radio frequency tracking systems. Its PalTrack systems has the capability of locating any person or asset in any facility at any time. It can perform multi-facility tracking from a single access point, providing the user with the ability to monitor personnel and assets worldwide from one or more monitoring stations. Program modules are available for automated inventory control, leased/rental, calibration and warranty monitoring with its exclusive DateWatch™ capability and asset reports. SovTech offers both turnkey and customized software and hardware solutions.
SovTech was the first company to devise a way to implant the PalTrack radio frequency transmitter tag into new, long-life wooden pallets, creating its first Smart-Pallet system. In it’s second generation version, Smart-Pallet II, plastic and composite pallets are addressed. Pallets can be tracked electronically within a facility, across the country, and into cooperative facilities. The system provides cost-effective, accurate pallet location in near-real time. The Smart Pallet furnishes a history of pallet movement by graphical display in near-real time while Smart Pallet II delivers hands-free inventory control.
The PalTrack Asset Tracking System (ATS), like the Smart Pallet-II, provides instant location of assets, produces on-demand inventory reports, generates audit trails on asset use and triggers alarms on any unauthorized movement of tagged assets.
The PalTrack tag is attached to the goods or container carried on a pallet or inside a shipping container. In the shipping industry, manifests now can be physically validated through electronic reconciliation without manual intervention. Pallets and containers no longer will leave the shipping bay, dock, or terminal with the wrong product or incorrect quantities. Having the accurate, up-to-the-minute status of products on hand will enhance just-in-time shipping. In security applications, personnel can be tracked within a facility, providing a near real-time view of employees and accurately identifying visitors who require an escort.
For more information call (732) 223-9798 or visit their Web site at www.sovtechcorp.com.
Specter Information Services
Specter Information Services was started in 1998 to develop niche applications for the logistics industry, according to president Kelvin Reid. "Our products are not mass-produced solutions," he said. "We believe in creating tools that are affordable to purchase and may be customized to fit corporations’ specific requirements."
Kelvin and associate Brian van der Veen have 15 years experience in logistics. KPal, Specter’s flagship product, is a software program developed to track the movement of hardwood pallets. The program was written in Microsoft Access and can be installed on virtually any IBM compatible computer that uses Windows 95-98. Menus and forms are intuitive and easy to learn and use.
KPal is independent of certain manufacturers and thus is not oriented toward one system or type of pallet. "Our tables were designed to promote multiple consignees, carriers, clients, and rental agencies," said Kelvin. "Our system also provides significant advantage in that it will track rental pallets, provide auditing tools to ensure the accurate calculation of fees. If our clients are having difficulty retrieving pallets from their carriers or consignees, KPal is capable of generating a rental invoice."
Specter is concentrating marketing efforts in Western Canada but also is researching the much larger U.S. market.
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