Strong growth and limited space to expand were the main ingredients needed to whip up a new 378,000-sq.-ft. distribution center in Pembroke, N.H., which is exactly what the Associated Grocers of New England (AGNE, agprod.agne.com) did in 2006. AGNE is a cooperative that serves independent grocers in all six New England states plus eastern New York. It offers grocers an inventory of more than 26,000 SKUs and provides merchandising, marketing and other services.
"Our goal is always to deliver the right goods, to the right customer, at the right time, for the right price. Performance at our distribution center is very important to meeting that goal," says Ken Peperissa, director of information technology.
The new DC gave AGNE the opportunity to reassess its systems and processes as well as the building's infrastructure and equipment. Even though managers had been fairly satisfied with its legacy wireless computer system, they took the opportunity offered by a new facility to update its wireless equipment with new vehicle-mounted and handheld mobile computers from LXE Inc. (Norcross, Ga., www.lxe.com).
Given the opportunity to choose the combination of wireless infrastructure and mobile computer equipment to best meet future growth needs, AGNE managers formed a task force to gather input from all major business units. The group specified the features and performance the new system should provide. One of the biggest planned changes was to install an 802.11-standard wireless backbone from Cisco Systems. Previously, AGNE used wireless access points from its mobile computer vendor.
Standardizing on Cisco gave AGNE an infrastructure with more network management and security options. Building around the Cisco network made interoperability a requirement. "We did not want to get into a finger-pointing situation between the computer and network providers in case something didn't work," Peperissa says.
Other selection criteria for the mobile and handheld units included flexibility for use in picking, putaway, shipping and receiving. The equipment needed to work in freezers and other cold, damp conditions. The handhelds and mobile computers had to be compatible with AGNE's IBM iSeries host computer and Power Warehouse software from Retalix (Israel, www.retalix.com). The new units also needed to have long-range bar code scanning capability.
AGNE was able to try out potential handheld and mobile computers by taking advantage of LXE's evaluation program to use the equipment for two weeks in its DC. "The trial program was very helpful," says Peperissa. "When our employees worked with the units, we learned that several of LXE's features were really useful. For example, the large keypad on the forklift-mounted computer is great for our operators, because they often wear gloves. We also learned the built-in antenna makes the handheld computers easier to use and more durable. The long range of the bar code scanner was also helpful to our operations."
AGNE uses VX6 vehicle-mounted computers for its lift trucks as well as MX7 and MX5 models for handheld operations. In total, there are approximately four dozen LXE wireless computers in use at the Pembroke DC for picking, putaway, shipping, receiving and other inventory control operations.
AGNE chose an internal heater option for the computers used in the frozen food storage area. The VX6 vehicle-mounted 802.11b/g-standard wireless computer has an IP66 ruggedness rating and a 10.5in. color touch screen with optional heating to eliminate condensation and ice buildup. The standard model can be used at temperatures ranging from -4°F to 122°F (20°C to 50°C), and the freezer model with heater can be used at -22°F (-30°C).
The MX7 and MX5 handheld computers have built-in laser scanners that can read bar codes from more than 40 ft. in AGNE's warehouse. They also have 802.11b/g radios, large screens and keyboards, and can be used in cold storage areas.
All the models run the Microsoft Windows CE .NET operating system and provide terminal emulation for AGNE's Retalix warehouse management system. They connect seamlessly with AGNE's new Cisco wireless infrastructure, and support Cisco Compatible Extensions (CCX) version 3. CCX is Cisco's certification program that tells users if the wireless products placed on their Cisco wireless network are operating efficiently.
AGNE now has the facility, network and computers it needs to efficiently grow and expand its services. Since moving into its new DC, it has increased its perishable offerings and moved forward with other growth and service plans. The customer base has also grown, putting more demands on workers and the facility.
"Our wireless computers get a lot of use, and in some cases, a lot of abuse." Peperissa adds that the "computers and service have been very reliable, and have given us exactly what we need."
Because LXE designed it handheld computers to be used in harsh environments, Associated Grocers of New England's employees can keep their gloves on while they are doing putaway or picking orders in freezers.