The sizes and weights of the products stored in your warehouse do matter. For years, we have encouraged distributors to build and maintain accurate item master data. But, for years, we continue to find companies struggle to collect and maintain quality item master information. So, maybe a trendy blog can get the message across of the importance of item master files, and how to get started and maintain a quality item master.
What is an item master?
In general, an item master file is a list of all products that have ever been in inventory (or cross docked) by an operation. This list includes multiple data fields representing the product’s storage and handling characteristics. A quality item master will include the various unit of measure dimensions (length, width, height), for a product at the unit, inner pack, case, and pallet level. The item weight is provided for the base unit of measure, which is typically ‘unit’ or might be for a single unit full case. The additional key data included in most item masters is units/case, units/inner pack, cases/layer, layers/pallet, pallet weight, case conveyability, pallet stackability, hazardous codes, storage temperature needs, and the like. Being powered with this item level detail greatly enhances the planning and management of warehouse operations.
Why does it matter?
Let me count the ways! But, since this is a short blog, let me focus on warehouse planning and management implications.
The warehouse planning process includes evaluating storage and handling equipment to support product storage and handling requirements. In order to design or improve a warehouse solution, it is important to know the physical size and weight of your items. If you only know how many ‘units’, ‘cases’ or ‘pallets’ are required for storage and handling it is difficult to select the right equipment types. Furthermore, in designing an inventory storage area or forward pick environment, there are key planning criteria, such as, ‘days of supply’ in the location, that require you calculate the inventory storage requirements in terms of cubic feet as well as the throughput requirements for items compared against the capacity of various equipment types. The product dimensions are a must have when planning to improve or design a warehouse.
A simple way to assess if someone has a complete item master file is to observe the type of storage equipment in the warehouse. A well-designed warehouse typically requires three to four types of equipment (single deep, double deep, push back, drive-in, shelving, case flow, pallet flow, etc…). But, you need quality item master data to make an informed decision on the storage types used in a warehouse. So, if there is only single deep rack in a given warehouse, the chances are the engineer didn’t have dimensional data in the item master. Don’t get me wrong, some operations only need single deep rack, and it is a very flexible design. But, if you have an inventory profile with higher than four to five pallets per SKU, you may be wasting warehouse space by using the wrong equipment type.
The impact of having a quality item master is even more critical when designing material handling solutions involving conveyors, sorters, and other automation. When designing these more expensive and complicated technologies, a poor item master can result in a compromised solution. For most automated solutions, one of the first steps is determining if you are handling units, cases or pallets. The item master is the main source for conversion data, enabling an engineer to calculate cases and pallets from the base unit volume. Without knowing units per case and cases per pallet from the item master the design volumes are based on data manipulation. In addition, if the item master doesn’t include flags for item conveyability, dimensions and weight, an expensive automated design is now mostly based on assumptions.
Another major reason for a quality item master is to enable the optimization of a warehouse management systems (WMS). If you are considering installing a shiny new WMS to improve the management of your inventory and labor force, first consider if you have the item master data to unleash its full potential. Many WMS benefits are based on knowing the item dimensions and other key product characteristics. For example, directed put-away typically requires the system to consider if the case or pallet dimensionally fits into the warehouse location. Warehouse consolidation logic also benefits from knowing the item and case dimensions. While there are other ways to enable warehouse consolidation and directed put-away using unit capacity metrics, using the dimensions (and weight) is an enhanced approach. The management of forward pick slotting and replenishment are other areas where product and location dimensions play a critical part in optimization. Cartonization logic, used to understand how many items will fit into an e-commerce customer’s shipping carton, only works if you have accurate unit dimensional data. These are just a few examples of how the item master can either empower or limit your WMS capabilities.
With the increase in the evaluation of automation, technologies and systems the use of quality item master data continues to be a limiting factor to effective planning and management of warehouses.
How do you get there?
Its simple, just get a scale and measuring tape! Good news, there are multiple dimension and weight measuring systems available to semi-automate the collection of item master data. It is a good practice to get a few of these machines and setup stations in the inbound/receiving area. To get caught up, a process can be established to either retrieve products from storage, take them to the measuring station and return them back to stock, or take the machine (on a cart or order picker) into the warehouse for data collection. Often, both approaches are used to get existing product dimensions and weights into the system.
The other initial approach is to contact vendors and/or manufacturers to request the item master data. While that sounds like the best approach, it can often take too long or amazingly leads you nowhere. If that fails to produce desired results, then move to collecting this information internally.
How do you stay there?
Yes, vendor packs change. This is often the reason for many not to pursue collecting the information. But, this is why you establish a process on the inbound, to validate product dimensions, pallet stack patterns and weight. If an item is identified to have a new vendor pack on the inbound, the item is moved to the measurement/weight station to be updated. If a new vendor pack slips past receiving, then the item likely gets flagged during stocking or replenishment. When a new SKU arrives into the facility, the WMS should flag the item for measurements/weight.
If you are having multiple distribution centers handling the same products, the decision must be made to leverage/share the item master information across facilities, or to maintain a separate item master. The best practice is to share the information, however, if multiple/different vendors are used, this could be problematic.
No, it is not easy to establish and maintain a quality item master, but it is essential to planning and managing an efficient operation. The need to get the most out of your existing facilities has never been more important. The rapid growth in ecommerce, tightening labor availability, and limited facility space are just a few good reasons for getting the foundation of planning and management established. The item master quality is a hidden key for unlocking your warehouse space and labor potential. Let’s go!
—Norm Saenz, St. Onge Company
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