Knowles Transport: Sustaining growth with Empirica


Logistics specialist Knowles Transport has been using the Empirica warehouse management system (WMS) from Chess for almost two decades.

During that time, it has undertaken a succession of upgrades to reflect the changing needs and growth of its business. The system has grown from enabling operations for a single client into a fully featured solution meeting the needs of numerous customers across multiple sites in the company’s network.

“The people at Chess are in tune with our business and requirements,” says Mark Hubbard, Operations Director at Knowles Transport. “We are growing and have a multisite operation. We work together and they deliver. If we took on another warehouse, we would use Chess. We see them as the standard for all of our business.”

Established in 1932 and still family-owned, Knowles Transport offers a complete logistics service from its base in Cambridgeshire. The company has 200 vehicles, 350 trailers, and total warehouse space of more than two million square feet. It works with some of the biggest and best-known businesses in the country, providing a complete set of ambient warehousing, distribution, consolidation, and bulk services.

Knowles started using Empirica in 2002 to support operations for a major new client. At the time it needed a solution that could interface with the client’s SAP system. After an extensive evaluation it chose Empirica based on the system’s capabilities, speed of implementation, and cost.

Empirica is a powerful and flexible solution for single or multi-site warehouses. It provides broad functionality to handle multiple modes of operation with highly configurable receipt and despatch processes, stock management, traceability, and extensive reporting. This includes advanced real-time tasking as well as seamless application interfaces for external supply chain communications with, for example, third party ERP systems. Additional functionality is enabled by modules. This approach allows rapid deployment of the core application and simple integration of additional features without the complexity and cost of unwanted or unnecessary functions.

“That version is very different to the one we use now,” says Mark Hubbard. “We only had one customer on the system at the time and it only rose to three or four over the next few years.”

The first major upgrade came in 2010 when Knowles developed its own consolidation unit after working closely with some of supermarket chain Sainsbury’s ambient food suppliers. As a result, Knowles needed to handle products from 22 new customers. Part of the requirement was to exchange information such as ASNs (advance shipping notices) between Knowles, the suppliers and Sainsburys. This was achieved using the interfacing capabilities of Empirica to ensure information could be translated and transmitted accurately and quickly between the systems used by the various parties.

The most recent upgrade came in 2016/17 when Knowles secured a major new contract with a food producer. This required a relatively complex solution with multiple interfaces to the customer’s ERP system and applications operated by a third party. It also needed to interface with the system the customer uses to manage products bought in from other producers. The three businesses worked together for almost ten months with support from Chess to configure and implement this integration. The solution exchanges ASNs and other information seamlessly across these various systems to help Knowles provide the customer with an integrated transport and warehousing solution.

Empirica currently oversees all warehouse management processes at two Knowles sites totalling around 600,000 square feet. Over 100 people use the system with tasks managed with RF terminals. The majority of orders are picked from full pallets or by the case. Customers have direct access via the system’s webview facilities. This allows them to see information about their own stock, place orders and produce reports.

“This is a great asset for the business,” says Mark Hubbard. “Customers don’t need to contact us to ask questions and it saves time.”

Both companies acknowledge that their long-term relationship has allowed them to develop a deep understanding of each other’s business. This has not only promoted loyalty but allowed them to work together closely to explore and exploit new opportunities and enable new capabilities for Knowles. For example, Chess worked with Knowles transport team to create an interface between the WMS and transport management system (TMS). 

When a customer places an order in the WMS, details are automatically uploaded to the TMS to alert the transport team they need to arrange a delivery. Recent enhancements to this function have added more information about delivery and collection times which has enabled greater scheduling flexibility and enhanced customer service. The strong relationship is also reflected in support. Chess initially offered training for all of the Knowles users but over time this evolved. Chess now “trains the trainers” either at its headquarters in Manchester or at Knowles’ own sites. 

The changes in the WMS since 2002 have reflected the evolving requirements of the business. Although this is now in effect a “bespoke” solution configured precisely to meet Knowles’ requirements, in practice the bulk of the functionality is based on standard processes provided by the core Empirica software and modules.

“It’s definitely a bespoke system,” says Mark Hubbard. “But it is reliable and stable and has room for us to grow and streamline our operations. From a reporting basis it gives us all we need. The flexibility of Chess and their team at adapting to our needs have been paramount to our relationship over the last 18 years.”

Mark and his colleagues are aware of the additional capabilities of the application but currently see no need for features such as voice picking. Knowles has recently announced that it is investing more into its ecommerce capabilities, reflecting accelerating demand from the market. During 2020 the long-term trend to online retailing was given added impetus by the Covid-19 pandemic as more consumers switched to home deliveries from their weekly shopping trips. Supermarkets and their supply chain partners – including Knowles - have responded by adapting their processes to reflect this. Knowles recognises that this also presents opportunities to engage with new customers. 

“This is an area we are keen to explore and pursue,” says Mark Hubbard. “We know by using Chess we have the tool to enable our goals. We have the space, the people and the right WMS to take this opportunity.”

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