Manage materials with vending programs

Vending programs can manage materials and provide workers with better access.

By Megan Mullins, John Morton, and Eric King, Motion Industries April 11, 2017

Efficiency is defined as the ability to do something without wasting materials, time or energy. Taking the time to identify where waste is occurring can be a challenge during a busy production day. Multiple shifts work to keep up with regular production, as well as deal with the occasional breakdowns that occur.

When stockroom items or personal protective equipment (PPE) are needed for a repair or operations job, a worker may go to a common area to retrieve the items. Implementing a vending program to obtain these items is one way to both provide needed materials to workers quickly and to examine areas of potential waste.

Accountability is about trust. Can employees trust that the items they need to perform their tasks will be readily available and functional? Can employers trust that their employees are responsible with the products they use to perform their jobs?

Time is an important and limited resource. A proper vending program can transform time into money by allowing workers to focus on output instead of searching, sometimes futilely, for work items they need.

A well-designed and implemented vending program can help a business to identify and achieve some of its goals. Vending operates behind the scenes to keep the workplace running and to keep the workforce focused and productive. To be most successful, each facility requires a solution customized to its needs. Here are two examples of how vending programs improved business success and worker productivity.

1. Steeling for change

An advanced metal fabricator had a large storeroom on one side of their facility where products were dispended. The fabricator decided to revamp their process to improve their workflow, and consulted with their vendor to understand what items their workers consumed regularly. In turn, this would determine which items would be candidates for vending machines.

This effort allowed the management team to take a closer look at their existing systems and identify areas of waste. The vendor worked with each department to collect data and got a more comprehensive look at what each department needed in a vending program. For example, some departments realized they were not using as much product as expected in certain areas of the plant.

In this case, it was found the large storeroom was inefficient. Department heads had to turn in "shopping lists" of products for re-order days in advance. Buyers tried to gauge the demand and order what they expected to need based on a min/max level. This guesswork resulted in the storeroom being consistently overstocked or understocked.

The time it took to go from a work station to the storeroom, collect the items and return resulted in many hours a week in lost productivity. The solution was to install a carousel and weigh scale machines at specific point-of-use locations throughout the plant.

In addition to the time savings for their employees, management got relief from another headache—paperwork. The vending solutions provided an automated reorder system that streamlined the billing process and decreased the number of invoices from several each day to a total of nine per week.

2. The beauty of efficiency

In the case of a cosmetology education company, a vending program worked well when implemented at their distribution center. Their primary need was to manage the Radio Frequency (RF) scanning devices to perform their work, and to have a method to control their PPE.

Associates had the option of using one of four types of RF scanners. These tools were stored on open shelves with no formal method of check-in/out or inspection. Workers often developed a preference of one model, to the point where they were reluctant to use the others. Workers couldn’t count on having a scanner available at the start of their shift—especially if there was an overlap between shifts—or that the scanner they chose would have fully charged batteries, or be undamaged.

Management relied on employees to report the condition of malfunctioning devices or request new batteries, but the lack of a convenient reporting system made this too often an afterthought at the end of a long shift. This resulted in the next group of associates having to spend valuable time searching for an operational scanner before beginning work.

After a full analysis of the customer’s needs, the best fit was a locker machine requiring employees to scan a badge or enter an ID number to access a locker with a scanner, and to report its condition upon return. It was a quick, simple feature that automatically alerted management if scanners required maintenance, and ensured each employee was guaranteed to have a functional scanner available. This small change resolved a major time waster. Another advantage was that each device could be accounted for, hence management could better maintain a surplus in case of an overlap in shifts.

The management team used a vending solution to hold itself accountable for the welfare of the workers by using two carousel solutions to dispense PPE. In this case, supervisors took advantage of the machine’s tracking function and automatic reordering process to ensure that employees always had their required safety product.

Accountability goes both ways—managers who are committed to working with their employees as a team often see great results that affect their bottom line. Implementing a vending program by necessity changes the way the entire team operates, and this change offers the potential to make improvements that are hard to quantify, but are inarguable.

For example, the new locker solution democratized the system in that employees were not guaranteed availability of their favorite scanner—which they initially considered a drawback. However, this provided an opportunity for management to focus on training so that each employee became comfortable using all of the devices. This removed a potential weakness from their workforce, while helping each shift to begin on time and in order.

Improving communications

Open communication between employees and management about the need for and value of a vending program is the hallmark of a successful operation. For example, when the distribution center made the decision to move their scanners to lockers, the leadership team actively promoted the change over a period of months. In various meetings, the leadership team and workers had a series of meetings to discuss the plan and address concerns.

When the locker system was installed, it was a "cold turkey" changeover. That morning, the other managers arrived early and were on hand to walk employees through the new process as they arrived. This collaborative effort paid off—by the end of the first week, 80% of employees had successfully made the switch; at end of first month, only five workers still required a bit of additional coaching.

According to the distribution center’s general manager, implementing the vending solutions improved scanner availability by 300%, and damage to the devices was reduced by 50%. These improvements were the result of a change in perception of the associates towards the products they used. He says the vending solutions "created a sense of value to the associates. They had thought of the consumables, such as gloves and safety glasses, as disposable. The vending devices created a sense of value for the product and led to a change of attitude and control."

The cosmetology education company also found that the placement of vending solutions saved their supervisors a significant amount of time. The new carousel machines took on the role of distributors of PPE, and now that associates can easily access their scanners from the locker machines, supervisors can spend more of their time on the floor, focused on their jobs. This is a win-win for a productive day’s work.

Optimizing operations

The process of implementing vending can provide a bird’s eye view of operations to better understand how employees use these materials and can highlight opportunities to improve process flow or training. And vending solutions can be tailored to a variety of industries and applications.

Allowing a business to return its full attention to creating its product or service is what a successful vending program as all about. Reducing costs while boosting productivity and maintaining high revenues is paramount. It can help companies to continue to adopt lean management practices and manufacturing environments and to continue to be competitive in the marketplace, especially in the U.S.

Vending is an integral part of this future by helping keep workplaces functioning at their peak potential.

Megan Mullins, John Morton, and Eric King are part of the Motion Industries’ Inventory Management Solutions (IMS) team in Birmingham, Ala.