Lumber Company Tracks Wood Wirelessly

An automated data collection tracking system incorporating bar coding replaces counting inventory by hand.

BY KELLY SCOTT

Dixie Tibbets and Christy McDowell do not have time to cross the road in Glendale, OR, to count 2 x 4s before they can place an order for their customer in California. Until January of 1998, Tibbets and McDowell, salespersons for Superior Lumber Co., had to send someone across Glendale Valley Road to manually count the lumber in the storage area to make sure there was enough in inventory to meet a customer's order.

With the help of Pacific Software Assoc. (PSA) and Intermec Technologies Corp., Superior replaced its manual tracking system with an automated system that combines a central database, hand-held computers, a wireless data-communications system and touch-screen terminals. Now, Tibbets, McDowell and their sales colleagues have instant access to all the inventory in the yard without having to leave their office.

Wireless data collection using bar-code technology is uniquely suited to operations like Superior's, where manufacturing is far in proximity from sales and where products are similar enough for human error to affect inventory counts.

Superior manufactures dozens of wood products at its Glendale plant, including 1 x 4s, 2 x 3s, 1 x 6s, green and dry veneer, and a variety of plywood products such as underlayment, sheathing, concrete form and marine board. In business since 1951, Superior employs more than 300 people and sells to such wholesalers as Georgia Pacific, Weyerhaeuser and Reliable as well as distribution centers.

The old, manual system had severe limitations. It wasted time, tying up labor that could have been better used elsewhere. In addition, it could not keep up with the movement of inventory in real time. On any given day, Tibbets might have to guess if a unit of lumber was available or had just been committed to another customer. If a count was not done, it could mean double-selling a unit, or selling more than the yard had in stock. But to do a manual count meant delaying a sale until the inventory was checked. With a five-acre storage area, this could translate into a long wait.

With the new system, all the lumber stacked in the yard is tracked even as it runs through the sawmill. PSA, an Intermec Premiere Solutions Partner, installed all the system hardware, which works with software specifically designed by PSA for use in wood products manufacturing. PSA's WoodScan Lumber Ticketing System software interfaces with PSA's WoodManager, an inventory control application Superior was already using.

"We can look at the screen right now and tell pretty much what is out there," Tibbets says, "whereas before we had to rely on an individual counting the units in inventory."

How the System Works

All the lumber produced is now tracked as it runs through the sawmill. Raw materials come to Superior in the form of felled trees that are taken by truck to the sawmill. The logs are measured, stripped of their bark and run through the saw blades to become rough lumber. All the lumber gets sorted by grade and size before it goes on to be smoothed and leveled by a planer. Once planed, the lumber is ready for sale.

The automation system begins in the sawmill with an IBM-133 Pentium personal computer at the rough sorter, where newly cut lumber arrives to be divided by length and number in each unit. The computer is equipped with a touch-screen monitor. An operator chooses an option, such as entering specifications for each unit of lumber, by pointing to one of the various symbols on the screen. This information is then sent by serial cable to a 4400 thermal transfer bar-code printer, which creates a label for each unit of cut lumber.

From the sorter, the newly ticketed lumber is driven to the planer or stacked to be fed later. A forklift operator pulls the bar-coded tickets from the units of lumber that are to be planed and scans them with an Intermec 1517 scanner. A 9710 wedge reader decodes the bar-code data for the computer. The information is then sent to the IBM AS/400 host computer via a wireless network using an RF bridge and several 0110 2.4GHz access points, because the data needs to travel over a large area. A wireless system was chosen to eliminate cabling in the mill environment, and to address reliability, versatility and mobility issues. Small, wireless computers allow operators to roam freely without interrupting their connection to the database.

The host computer can track which units of lumber have gone to the planer, deleting the count from rough or "green" inventory. The database will consider the planed lumber to be a new product, so it will need a separate bar code number from the one it had when it was still rough lumber.

The planer operator then creates a new bar-coded ticket for each unit of finished lumber, indicating grade, length and number of pieces. When the new bar-coded ticket is created, the system automatically adds the unit to the finished inventory. A forklift operator staples the ticket to the new unit of lumber, then stacks it in the storage yard.

WoodManager by itself was capable of tracking inventory, but only if the lumber was counted manually and the totals hand-keyed into the system. By pairing it with WoodScan, the system can now gather information off lumber tickets as they are pulled and scanned in the shipping department.

"The overall plan is for the shipping clerk to be able to just run the scanner and print a bill of lading right out there in the shipping office," says Campbell.

Errors, too, can be caught with the wireless system. "We can pick out a unit if it has been put on the truck inadvertently," Tibbets says. "Say a unit of standard and better has been put on a truckload of one and better," she continues, referring to two grades of lumber, "we can tell if that is the case at that time."

As product is sold, all pieces are subtracted from the total inventory. The tallies are made available to the sales team, updated in real-time. If Tibbets has a customer on the line, she has instant access to the lumber volume on hand, categorized by unit length, as well as that already committed for sale.

"As far as efficiency, the system has really helped our sales people," Campbell says. "They're not running back and forth to the lumber yard two, three times a day to check and see if they have something in stock. They know."

Room for Future Improvements

Campbell said Superior has gained two major benefits from the new system: added support for its sales force, allowing it to improve customer service; and a quicker, more efficient way to track inventory.

Ultimately, what Superior ends up with is the tools to help build its business. In the future, Superior can work backward in the life of each lumber unit and track it from the time a tree is felled.

When integrated with production, the wireless network will give the company accurate information on how much wood went through the sawmill. Campbell sees the potential already. "It'll give us a real good idea how efficiently we are turning a log into pieces of wood and lumber," he says, "because we know the volume of logs that went in. It'll tell us exactly how much, and of what grades, came out the other end."

 

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.