Chill factor [July/August 2012 print edition]

by Array

Summertime is ice cream season, which means summer is also the busiest time of the year for ice cream distribution and warehousing company TransCold Distribution Ltd.

In the past Delta, British Columbia-based TransCold has had to hire extra staff to find, pick and process outbound orders of vanilla, strawberry and rocky road ice cream. This year, the company didn’t need the extra manpower — not because western Canadians are abstaining from frozen treats, but because of operational efficiencies gained through the company’s newly installed warehouse management system (WMS).

TransCold distributes Breyers ice cream and Popsicle-branded products for Unilever in British Columbia, Alberta, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Washington and Oregon, and Chapman’s ice cream lines in British Columbia. It also handles frozen products such as SoGood’s frozen soy desserts and Sara’s ice cream cakes.

Until recently, the company, which does over $80 million in sales, had been handling the old-fashioned treats in an old-fashioned manner—manually, using paper-based methods, says Curtis Wright, director of Logistics for TransCold.

“We would order product from our supplier, Unilever. They would send the order to us. We’d have that order in an e-mail and it would be printed for the warehouse to check it off when it was received. Then they would manually write down where it was located in the freezer because we had manually labelled the freezer by aisle and row, so that we knew where vanilla ice cream was sitting all the time — where it was in the pick location and where it was in the storage location,” explains Wright.

“Then we’d have to record all the numbers required by the supplier onto pieces of paper and we’d keep them in a manual, which we duplicated so we could have one in the office and one in the warehouse. What was happening was we were finding it more difficult to locate smaller amounts of products.”

The system TransCold chose came from Avalanche Food Inc, an Oakville, Ontario-based technology service provider for the frozen food industry. Avalanche has experience working with SOCS, the order entry system used by TransCold’s main supplier. Integrating that and TransCold’s Accpac invoicing system was crucial. Avalanche also offered features that TransCold hadn’t even considered, such as being able to enter expiry dates automatically.

The new system uses handheld scanners instead of paper and pencils to record product information. Because of the freezer environment, Avalanche had to ensure the technology would work in the low temperatures, says Alan Bush, president of Avalanche Food.

“We used really old technology because it’s the most reliable in the cold. And the little handhelds we’re using can handle really low data rates. So that kind of interface is pretty inexpensive. We used old Cisco wireless access points that are only A-band. It’s old and slow, but the terminals we’re using are emulating VT220 terminals so they’re like old green screens from the ’70s. We don’t need the speed. What we want is the reliability and the ability to withstand the cold.”

Information captured by the handhelds is used to feed the cloud-based WMS. Data from the warehouse floor feeds the WMS, which in turn reigns supreme over the company’s other systems, adds Wright.

The cloud-based WMS has been implemented in the company’s main warehouse in Delta, British Columbia. Next it will be rolled out in the Calgary, Alberta warehouse, then in the Nanaimo, British Columbia facility.

TransCold is also working to expand the system’s capabilities. Besides storing frozen foods, the company handles dry goods such as waffle cones and even equipment such as display freezers used in retail outlets. Currently these items aren’t accounted for in the system, explains Wright.

“We didn’t even think of it at the beginning, and then a light bulb went off and we said, ‘Hey why can’t we do everything?’ So Avalanche is working on those modules. In fact I received an e-mail, and all I have to do is approve it and they’ll go ahead.”