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Does this sound all too familiar?

A field foreman urgently needs an item and phones a request to the company warehouse. The warehouse transposes a number while taking down the request. The warehouse can’t locate item in inventory, and notifies the foreman it can’t be found, asking if the item ID number is correct? Impatiently, the foreman corrects the item number. The warehouse reenters the number correctly, but, interrupted by another urgent request, acts on that first. After waiting an hour, the frustrated foreman calls the warehouse again. With apologies, the warehouse finally ships item to field, where workers have been idled for several hours awaiting delivery. The delivered item was intended for another jobsite’s order.

Yesterday

Anyone in the construction industry who has submitted, processed or managed requisitions from the field has probably lived that scenario time and again, calling a warehouse, waiting on hold or a callback to talk to someone about an order, giving them verbal order details—and then the shipment is incomplete or contains some wrong parts. On a construction jobsite, where time is always at a premium, delays resulting from the imperfect art of field requisition management have always been a tolerated, but an unpredictable bottleneck and an increasingly expensive element of doing business.

Today

Most construction companies have some sort of process for accepting requisitions from the field. Those processes may not be formal; they may be as simple as a phone or email request for items from people in the field. Others use printed, multi-part requisition forms that standardize the type and detail of information needed, giving field and warehouse a common source of reference if something goes awry during the ordering and shipping process. But even that level of formality is time-consuming and error-prone.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, construction companies are increasingly adopting digital and cloud technology, enabling field and warehouse staff to transact their mutual business using mobile tablets and smartphones capable of accessing highly detailed, cloud-based information about every item in the company’s inventory. But even with today’s sophisticated technology, there is still no consistent interface between field and warehouse for requesting needed items, or even information about what’s available.

Tomorrow

With all the ease, speed, and convenience digital technology has brought to tool and materials management, there are still new heights to conquer in the field requisition process. What’s needed is a whole new mindset about requisitioning and fulfilling field supply and equipment orders.

It’s time for construction warehouses to start behaving like fulfillment centers.

Practically every consumer has come to rely on the speed and convenience of mammoth fulfillment houses that have refined the ordering and delivery process to a veritable science. A customer who needs an item—any item—simply goes online, does a quick, intuitive search, compares various options, clicks the preferred item, pays with a credit card, selects a shipping method, and the shipment arrives promptly and exactly as ordered.

Field requisition management is ideally suited to a similar model. The technology already exists, and it’s just a matter of applying the same operational principles to the day-to-day interactions between the field and warehouse.

The field is the logical place to start implementing the fulfillment center concept, because field teams have shown openness to trying new techniques and technologies, and they are more likely to embrace the fulfillment center approach because it simply makes sense and will make their jobs significantly easier. Starting the digital platform in the field also cuts down on chatter and emails, displays more levels of visibility, and provides instantaneous tracking at every step along the way. At the same time, the warehouse team learns to think of their service as a fulfillment center.

The construction industry has spent the last 30 years focusing on the warehouse and back office; now it’s time to focus on the field because they’re willing and able to seize the opportunity with enthusiasm. When the field adopts the online shopping concept and the warehouse starts operating as a fulfillment center, they will start a digital revolution that will quickly propagate throughout the industry. Once that customer/merchant mentality takes hold across the industry, the result will be streamlined field management and time and money savings at construction operations everywhere.

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