Medical and surgical consumables supplier Vygon has developed a highly efficient distribution operation by utilising the advanced capabilities of the Empirica warehouse management system from Chess Logistics Technology.
Since implementing the system a decade ago the company has introduced a number of innovations, improvements and refinements that have eliminated unnecessary process steps to increase warehouse efficiency and productivity while at the same time increasing throughput volumes and accuracy to customers to 99.98 per cent.
"We've introduced a number of modifications to the WMS to support changes to the way we work," says Chris Bint, Distribution Manager at Vygon (UK) Ltd. "It demonstrates the huge flexibility of Empirica that we can fine-tune the core application to do this."
Established in France in 1962 by Pierre Simonet, Vygon has expanded to include subsidiaries and product distributors in 64 countries. Its products are manufactured in seven factories, all certified to ISO9000 and ISO13485. Vygon (UK) Ltd was established in 1973 and is the largest subsidiary in terms of turnover, £60m in 2016.
With 170 employees based at its UK headquarters in Swindon, the company is a leading and trusted supplier of medical and surgical consumables to the NHS, as well as the private, homecare and veterinary markets. The company introduced Empirica a decade ago when it was based in Cirencester and relocated to Swindon in 2011 where the larger premises have potential for expansion as the business grows.
"The WMS was a godsend during the relocation because it allowed us to keep track of stock as we completed a staggered consolidation of the three old warehouses into the new site ahead of schedule," says Chris Bint. "Bringing operations under one roof made everything easier."
The warehouse is geared to meet the needs of all customers but particularly the NHS, its largest, which it supplies in two main ways. First, many items are supplied as palletised bulk or consolidated orders to replenish stock in the seven regional NHS Supplies warehouses. These orders, known internally as Consign Build, are typically delivered to each warehouse once a week. Second, orders which fall under the NHS Blue Diamond designation are supplied only when they are ordered by a hospital or other facility. These are usually delivered to end users within 48 hours which means a same-day response from Vygon to ensure they reach the right NHS Supplies warehouse the following day for onward delivery.
Both categories are key to the success of the overall NHS supply chain but each requires different processes. With orders taken up to 5pm and a latest despatch time of 5.30pm the complete operation, including the WMS, must be adaptive to ensure items can sometimes be picked and processed in less than 30 minutes. In addition to meeting its next-day commitments to the NHS, the company typically achieves a two-day turnaround on all orders.
Vygon recognises the need to make its internal operations as accurate and efficient as possible. It has an internal task force to assess and simplify operations. Many processes are completely electronic with no need for paper manifests which has increased accuracy, legibility and speed.
The warehouse stocks around 2500 lines and is carefully arranged for efficiency, with bulk items stored at the rear in 12m high-bay racking served by pallet handling trucks and a picking zone in front. Separate areas for order preparation, packing and despatch are further towards the front of the building. Goods are double-checked as they arrive at the warehouse because making sure everything is correct helps to minimise errors further down the line. Items are rechecked at almost every stage of their journey through the warehouse.
"We capture the majority of internal mistakes before products leave the facility," says Chris Bint. "Our accuracy-to-customer during 2015 and 2016 was 99.98%."
An interface between Vygon's ERP system and Empirica, created using the WMS's integration module, enables seamless and automatic transfer of all vital information. Once items are accepted, the WMS allocates the best putaway location using a number rules devised by Vygon to maximise efficiency by reducing unnecessary stock handling movements. With one check, pallets are directed to free spaces previously occupied by identical products to maintain simplicity. Another check identifies available space in pick faces, using information such as product codes and batch numbers for proper stock rotation, to bypass bulk storage areas altogether. Pharmaceutical products are always allocated to designated areas for compliance reasons. All tasks are managed using hand-held RF scanners that interact with the WMS.
Apart from modifications to support specific processes, the main way the WMS has evolved has been through removing redundant confirmations and keystrokes associated with various tasks. The core application has a standard configuration designed to meet the requirements of a typical warehouse but Vygon recognised that many of its own tasks involved interactions that added no new information or value. Working with Chess the company has fine-tuned these standard interactions to simplify and shorten overall process times.
With order picking operations, for example, six button presses were removed while consolidated scheduling means operatives only need to visit the same pick face once for a wave of orders. Four more button presses have been removed from post-pick sorting where simple colour coding of trolleys helps identify specific orders, tasks and priorities.
Packing desk operations have been similarly improved. Items are picked onto trolleys and must be checked and labelled before packing for delivery. This involves a number of interactions with the WMS such as scanning barcodes, reading on-screen information, verifying batch numbers, checking customer information, clicking various buttons, printing and applying labels and so on.
Eliminating confirmations and other unnecessary mouse and button clicks has optimised the overall process so that each parcel can be checked and labelled 15 seconds quicker than with the original, standard setup based on real-world timings made by the company. The most recent improvement, for example, redefined how items are scanned and checked as they are packed. The only visible change to the user was a different button on the screen. While the time saved for each package may seem small, the gain over a working week can be significant, and helps maximise throughput and productivity during peak periods.
With Consign Build, remodelling processes such as order picking, sorting and packing resulted in time savings equivalent to 1/3 of a full-time employee and payback within around three years. The company has employed a similar approach to re-engineering its Blue Diamond order processing and this resulted in a migration from manual to electronic manifests.
"We have saved around 50 button presses across the warehouse as well as making other efficiencies," says Chris Bint. "Our forthcoming changes will save us around eight working days per month based on peak rates."
Changes to these processes require refinements to the standard WMS, such as altering the screen layout or removing discreet steps in the underlying coding, and occasionally something more complex. When Vygon identifies a process or task modification it explains its requirement to Chess. The developer's software team creates a new working version for thorough evaluation in a test environment, a requirement of Vygon's BSI accreditation, before it goes live.
"The ability to mould the WMS gives me scope to save labour," says Chris Bint. "If the potential return on investment is OK, we sign it off and Chess does the work."
Vygon envisages that it will continue to adapt its Empirica application to support its evolving business requirement. With its established and settled warehouse workforce of 23 the improvements the company has made are not about reducing headcount. Instead, the objective is to enable the existing team to work more efficiently, productively and accurately and manage larger throughputs as the business continues to grow.