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Logistics in action

Some 4.3 million Brother products are delivered to customers across the UK each year. PrintIT Reseller caught up with Keith Howe, Director of Supply Chain and Service, to find out more about the company’s supply chain and logistics infrastructure

Keith Howe, Director of Supply Chain and Service, Brother
Keith Howe, Director of Supply Chain and Service, Brother

Howe is based in Brother’s head office in Manchester and has overall responsibility for procurement, import/customs, storage and warehousing, as well as co-ordinating and planning all of the deliveries to the company’s channel customers.

You only have to travel a short distance before you see any number of lorries, HGVs and delivery trucks on the roads, but I for one haven’t really given much thought to how the products we buy for work and for home, get from A to B. Howe explained what happens behind the scenes at Brother and how its supply chain and logistics infrastructure is geared to provide a seamless, flexible service to its customer base.

Two months ahead

Brother printers and consumables are manufactured worldwide, the company has ten sites in Japan and its products are also produced in other facilities in China, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, USA, Philippines, Malaysia and the UK. With shipping typically taking several weeks, forward planning is essential and orders are placed well in advance to ensure sufficient stock is onsite to fulfil customer orders. “We are always two months ahead of what we need to do from a purchasing point of view,” Howe explained.

“We also need to take other factors that impact on lead times into account, for example, Chinese New Year means that we can’t place orders in December, so we need to bring these forward a month or so to ensure that stock is received in January. At any one time we could have between £8 to £9 million worth of stock in transit,” he added.

Brother also has a strong presence across Europe which includes a central stockholding facility in France and a warehouse for spare parts in Germany. “We replenish certain lines from France once a week and deliver these directly onto our customers,” Howe said.

Warehousing used by Brother
Warehousing used by Brother

Recovery planning is also part and parcel of the job. “We have to work on worst case scenario and have a plan B in place if we’re unable to source from the Far East, or if there’s likely to be any delay with the shipping for example,” he said. “If we need to, we can pull products in from Europe and vice versa. We have almost instant access to around six weeks’ inventory, we might need to rework the instruction manuals for example, but having that flexibility is tightly embedded into the planning process,” he added.

Working the logistics

Howe heads up a 50+strong in-house team of logistics and service personnel. He also manages and oversees the company’s outsourced services that includes local storage and warehousing facilities as well as a large distribution facility in Lutterworth, third-party delivery companies, the service division and the customer service call centres.

The Lutterworth-based warehouse and distribution centre typically houses between 10,000 to 12,000 pallets at any one time. “That’s our basic stockholding,” Howe explained. All distributor and dealer orders are managed and co-ordinated from our head office and the brief for the transportation of each and every order is led by Howe and his team.

Brother logistics
Brother logistics

“Whilst we use a third-party site, it runs as if it was a Brother owned site,” Howe said. “Order confirmation and billing comes from Manchester and we allocate the mode of transportation for every order before we send them to DHL, whether it’s by courier, haulier, trailer, or even first or second class post,” he added.

Howe recently switched carriers, appointing DPD as it sends text messages to advise customers of a one-hour delivery window. “That’s an extra value-add service that our customers can enjoy,” he said.

Some customers have their own warehousing and have specific logistics requirements that Brother needs to meet. “We can send out ten to twelve trailers a week to some distributors, each of these will hold products with different labels and will be packed in pallets that meet individual customers’ specifications in terms of height, size and volume. And the requirements can vary enormously, some customers with multiple locations have different requests depending on which site the order is to be delivered to. We’re responsible for all of that detail,” he added.

According to Howe the logistics operation has to constantly flex and change. “Customers can transact with us any way they wish, from email or via file transfer. We’ve built lots of flexible systems and we are continuously reshaping how we work,” he said, citing MPS as one example. “The market is moving and MPS deployments becoming more mainstream, Brother’s MPS model is scalable from a basic offer to a more sophisticated solution and we’re rolling it out through the channel.

“There are any number of challenges that come with that. Once a dealer has set-up an MPS contract we manage the supplies replenishment on their behalf and ship the consumables to wherever an individual device is located,” he added.

Brother products awaiting dispatch
Brother products awaiting dispatch

He continued: “Each customer has different requirements and we have to ensure that we’re set-up to meet all of their needs. Whether that’s to deploy a trailer to fulfil an order placed by a distributor, ship a delivery to a large retailer who needs a bespoke service, despatch one device to a reseller, or send a set of consumables to a dealer’s MPS contract customer.”

Customer service

The operation is slick. “A trailer could be carrying 150 SKUs but if a query is logged we can tell the customer which box an individual item is packed in. That’s how we add value to our customers. There’s no product crossover, no shortages and I can’t recall more than a handful of errors in the last ten to fifteen years,” he said. “There might be the odd tape or cartridge that’s damaged or gets lost, but that’s about it.”

He continued: “That’s the high level of service we offer. Our customers don’t have to worry about whether or not their goods will arrive on time, or if there will be products missing or damaged. We do extra things that mean they don’t have to quality check onsite. They know it’s right and that reassurance can take cost and waste out of their operations.”

All returns are received in Manchester which houses a workshop staffed by eight highly skilled engineers. “Customer repairs are done onsite, we pull all spare parts from Germany and wherever possible we aim to offer customers a 48-hour turnaround,” Howe said.

Brother employs a further four fieldbased service engineers who in addition to repairing devices at customers’ own sites, also train dealers and other third-party service providers to maintain and repair Brother printers.

The company has a first level customer contact centre in Kingston upon Thames as well as a second level call centre at head office. “We’re constantly training our first level operators which reduces the volume of calls that get escalated, in turn this helps us continue to improve and evolve our second level support teams,” Howe said.

Running a tight ship

Inventory control is a smooth operation at Brother and Howe runs a tight ship. “In association with Deloitte we do an inventory count twice a year,” he explained.

The last inventory took place in October last year. Howe confirmed that there was no loss on units but there was one difference in value. “We had a crossover on one product which resulted in the small valuation charge,” he explained. “Our variance on loss was just £500 for the year and that’s on a stock holding worth £140 million. That’s something we’re incredibly proud of,” he added.

Recording such a small loss is no mean feat when you consider that during this financial year, Brother delivered 4.3 million items and the total number of claims agreed was just six.

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