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KEYENCE Barcode Scanners Keep Product Moving for Henry's Foods

Food product distributor depends on KEYENCE scanners to load trucks quickly and efficiently, with productivity gains setting the stage for the next phase of company expansion.

Keeping shelves filled with just the right amount of product can ensure profitability for small grocery and convenience stores. These small retailers depend on distributors to deliver products daily to satisfy customers so they won't have to maintain costly inventory. Henry's Foods, based in Alexandria, Minnesota, services these stores across several states in the upper Midwest.

Every night, about 30 semi-trucks leave the warehouse and follow routes to deliver dry, refrigerated and frozen food products along with various sundries and tobacco products. Each truck typically carries around 20,000 items ranging from a carton of potato chips to a single can of chewing tobacco. Trucks have to be carefully loaded so items for the first stop are put on last. Trucks are stacked floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall so drivers can only reach items at the rear of the item stack in the truck.

Implementing this precise loading procedure depends on sophisticated warehouse control to move huge amounts of goods quickly, accurately and profitably. The warehouse has six main product areas where order pickers take products off the shelf and place them on conveyors.

Directed by instructions on a Pickright hand-held scanner, pickers take specific products off the shelf in order. Each picker prints a barcode label using a wireless printer they carry and sticks the label on each package. This label indicates which truck and customer stop the package is assigned to.

The six conveyors merge into one that goes to the loading docks where products are packed onto trailers. There are three docks so three trucks can be loaded simultaneously. A sorter is supposed to send each package to the correct truck, however problems were occurring.

Henry's Foods had installed barcode scanners so the sorter could send each item to the correct truck, but the system never worked properly. When trying to load three trucks, the sorter would typically misread up to 30% of the packages. Those items would continue down onto a «jackpot» lane that would have to be sorted manually. This forced Henry's Foods to loading one truck at a time, which placed a huge constraint on throughput and hobbled ambitions to expand.

PFM Integrators is an automation company that has done projects for Henry's Foods, and company management asked PFM if it could take on the sorter project. Ken Baych, project engineer for PFM recalls the situation: “The main problem was the range of height of the packages compared to the scanner position, and with 1D barcode technology, the size of the barcode was bigger than a sheet of paper. Even then, unless the barcode was in exactly the right spot, it couldn't hit any higher than 70 to 80%. So with 20,000 to 30,000 packages a night and up to a 30% misread rate, it was a nightmare.”

Having used KEYENCE products on other projects, Baych thought getting new barcode scanners would be the first step to a solution. KEYENCE and PFM agreed that a 2D barcode approach was preferable to the earlier 1D attempt since 2D barcodes can be read more easily regardless of position. Designing the solution was truly a group effort as it involved warehouse pickers, truck loaders, maintenance, IT, Pickright, PFM and KEYENCE.

Working with KEYENCE, PFM designed the scanner tunnels, built control panels and wrote supporting software. Once installed, it became a matter of getting all the elements integrated and working out the bugs. It was clear from the start that the new scanners could do a much better job of getting an accurate read of the labels even though they were far smaller than the labels used with the older system. Implemented scanners are from the SR-750 Series. Its corrective capture and process techniques provide best-in-class reading capability even for difficult to read codes. It automatically selects the optimal settings for reading 1D or 2D codes from as many as 250,000 correction patterns.

The main complicating factor was the package size could be anything from roughly a 5-inch cube to a 30-inch cube (125 mm to 760 mm), multiple shapes and placed in any spot on the conveyor. “There are a huge variety of package sizes,” says Jim Murphy, conveyor specialist for Henry's Foods. “The mix can include full cartons that can be 30 inches tall to a small tote that is only several inches. The distance of the barcode sticker to the scanner can vary a great deal from package to package.”

Packages can be any color with many shapes and materials. Order pickers must work very quickly and accurately as they pull products and attach labels. Packages whiz down the conveyor at 300 ft/ minute (91 m/minute), requiring the barcode scanners have to read quickly and positively.

Using the new system, Henry’s Foods is now loading multiple trucks with a far higher level of accuracy, and Baych expects to get well past 99%.

Murphy is enjoying how the project has increased warehouse throughput. “I've never seen a barcode reading system be this successful for this type of application with all these different variables. We're very happy with it. We did a preliminary test and did two-route waves, six routes, and three in a row. Now we pick two-route waves every day. In essence, we have doubled our throughput, and we'll move to three-route waves as we smooth out some upstream issues. Those scanners do a wonderful job, and we're asking a lot from them,” concludes Murphy.