Don’t Toy with Kids’ Desires

PFSweb’s new Memphis DC processes 30,000 orders and 100,000 items each day. But with the seasonality of the toy business, this 3PL needed flexibility with automation to keep up with changing demand.

PFSweb develops and deploys integrated business infrastructure solutions and fulfillment services for Fortune 1000, global 2000 and brand name companies. It offers third party logistics, call center support and e-commerce services for both B2B and direct-to-consumer supply chains. It can manage complex operations such as retail replenishment, time-definite logistics, kitting and assembly and postponed manufacturing. It does all that in more than 2.5 million square feet of distribution infrastructure.

The latest addition to that square footage is under the roof of its new Memphis, Tenn., distribution center. The focus of this 160,000 square-foot DC is retail: 95 percent direct-to-consumer and 5 percent to retail stores. Ninety percent of all of this business is toys, the seasonality of which creates extreme peaks and valleys in throughput volumes. Retail store orders, website orders and catalog orders for toys handled by the DC, fluctuate not just for the holidays, but at different times throughout the year.Fluctuations even occur with product line shifts from year to year.

“We really need to be flexible in our material handling equipment, in our labor and in our facilities,” says Scott Tally, vice president of global logistics for PFSweb. “Our clients may come back and say that this DC needs to do something different from what it did last year. We have to be able to respond to that.”

The DC has a normal-operating throughput of 25 cartons per minute, and 30,000 cartons shipped each day containing more than 100,000 individual toys. At peak times, those volumes rise considerably, which necessitated the need for extreme flexibility to be designed into the distribution center’s material handling layout. For this, PFSweb brought in Dematic to engineer and build a system that would accommodate such throughput fluctuations.

Orders come in to the DC’s WMS from its client’s ERP systems. From there the orders go to picking where items are picked to RF carts that hold shipping boxes for each order.The boxes are size pre-selected by the WMS based on the volume of contents to go into them.Each box typically holds 3.5 to 4 items for an order. Once the cart is finished being picked, each box is inducted onto Dematic’s variable speed conveyor system.

Plug-n-Play Modules

This variable-speed modular system can convey toys of widely divergent weights and sizes. If PFSweb’s process needs to change, the modular conveyor units can be unbolted from the floor and moved to fit a new process.The conveyor snaps together.

One of the largest risks associated with purchasing inflexible material handling systems is that order profiles will change, necessitating new processes and new hardware configurations.PFSweb built in 1,500 linear feet of the modular conveyor.

“In the past, when we put a big conveyor system in, it was hard to change it or modify it for our changing business needs,” continues Tally.

Pneumatics are eliminated on the PFSweb system, and each conveyor section has its own control logic and internal wiring. These controls give individual sections of the conveyor the ability to speed up or slow down.The modular system also maintains user-selectable gapping between conveyable items.Without changing hardware, PFSweb operators can select a desired gap for maximum buffer, for sorting, or for proper pitch prior to an in-line scale. Operators can also select the speed from 70 feet-per-minute up to 400 feet-per-minute.

“The conveyors have no air compressors, and there are no big motors or gear boxes on the system,” Tally says. “Instead of big motors, every roller on the conveyor has a small electric motor.This allows us to go through a control device and increase the speed of the conveyor with just a few keystrokes.”

It also has the functionality to automatically turn itself off when it is not needed, reducing power consumption up to 30 percent.

“The conveyor system has small, modular belt sections,” says Joseph Cianfarani, with Dematic. “If packages are too widely dispersed—too close to each other or too far apart—the conveyor adjusts spacing appropriately with its localized intelligent controls. If a package is too far behind the one in front of it, when it enters a new modular section of conveyor with a photo eye, that conveyor section speeds up the belt and the package rapidly moves up to the appropriate spacing. If a package is too close to the one in front, the conveyor slows down.”

The cartons are then routed to the first sorter, which diverts into lanes where personnel put packing material into the boxes.The boxes are sealed and put back onto the conveyor and sent to another sorter where they are diverted to shipping lanes.

Steerable Wheel Sortation

Steerable wheel sorters enable bidirectional sortation. The ability to sort to both sides of the conveyor allows the sorter to be shorter, saving space and reducing costs. Special compound, high-friction rollers turn to gently convey PFsweb’s products to their destinations. The sorters use powered in-line rollers that can be switched to a skewed position for diverting.

These sorters are integrated with the conveyor line. The sorter employs small motors that are used in the rollers and within the steerable-wheel diverts to enable precise package control.

“PFSweb was supplied with a complete spare divert module which can be swapped out in minutes in the case of a failure,” Cianfarani continues.“This enables maintenance to get the system up and running quickly then diagnose and repair a failed part.”

Smooth Running System

PFSweb’s new material handling system allows the DC to efficiently handle direct-to-consumer and retail distribution of toy products with facility and extreme flexibility.

“We were not building the system just for peak volumes, we wanted something that was flexible and cost-effective to handle variables in our volumes,” Tally explains. “I feel we achieved that with the solution we put in place.”


Jim McMahon writes on logistics automation and has appeared in hundreds of industrial and high-tech publications throughout the world. He can be reached at [email protected].

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