Meeting Uniform Needs at Maximum Speed

At Superior Uniform continual investment in automation and information technology speed order fulfillment.

Uniforms are a source of pride for any team, whether that team is playing football or stocking shelves in a retail superstore. Paradoxically, on the corporate side anyway, making sure new hires have uniforms is often an afterthought. In that weakness, Superior Uniform saw a way to strengthen its position in the uniform supply game.

Superior Uniform Group is headquartered in Seminole, Fla., and has its distribution operations in Eudora, Ark. The company manufactures and sells a range of uniforms, apparel and accessories to the healthcare, hospitality, food services, retail, government, and transportation markets. What do these diverse markets have in common?

"These customers don't want to manage their uniform inventories, they want us to manage them," answers Charles Sheppard, Superior's v.p. of manufacturing. "If they have a new store opening a week from now, they want their uniforms delivered in time for the opening. Most of our customers are asking in their contracts for 48 to 72-hour order turn. A lot of them require 24-hour turns because they are not stocking any uniforms themselves."

Superior meets its customers' needs with a 218,000-sq.-ft. facility that includes a 90,000-sq.-ft. robotic warehouse, equipped with tilt tray sorters, a vision system, robotic cranes and conveyors. The facility was upgraded in 1994, but in 2004 it worked with HK Systems (Milwaukee, www.hksystems.com) to further improve the firmware controlling the robotic cranes and modernized the material handling equipment to prepare the facility for a new warehouse management system (WMS). These enhancements, completed in early 2005, cost more than $6 million. According to Sheppard, it's been well worth the investment from a competitive perspective.

"We believe the ability to service companies through our distribution center is a core competency and a competitive advantage for Superior Uniform Group a uniform supplier," he says. "We can ship to each individual location in a big grocery chain of 1,000 stores. We can also ship small orders to all of those stores every day."

Uniform Order Fulfillment

Once inventory is received, it is processed through Superior's distribution center via a host computer system in Florida. Inventory is stored in either the robotic warehouse or a full-case warehouse. In the automated facility an eight-aisle automated storage and retrieval system quickly pulls and stores cases used for picking. Robotic cranes pull boxes and place them on conveyors that carry them to a tilt tray sorter, where individual orders are picked. A vision system tracks items to verify that they reach their designated destination. After picking is completed, order accuracy is verified up to three times. Orders then move to the shipping dock.

Because Superior supplies customers locations around the globe, its personnel are thoroughly versed in the procedures of international shipping. The traffic department works with Customs (both U.S. and foreign), processing all commercial paperwork, and export documentation necessary to get customer orders out on time.

Without automation, Sheppard believes that Superior would have had to quadruple the size of its warehouse and workforce over the years. For a company of its size at the time, the initial multi-million-dollar investment that Superior made back in 1994 was quite a risk. But he says it wasn't too difficult of a decision for the company's CEO, Michael Benstock, who got his start on the manufacturing and distribution side of the company.

Most recently, the company had good experience with a corporate SAP upgrade and managers realized that a standardized WMS package would make future upgrades easier as customers' requirements changed. The new system has made it possible for Superior to offer customers a 24-hour order turnaround. That's not to say the company didn't learn some hard lessons.

"We didn't do a good enough job preparing our customers for the WMS upgrade," Sheppard says. "There were the expected start-up challenges that should have been better communicated with our partners." The system wasn't properly sized to Superior's daily output, and the computer system required an upgrade immediately after startup. After they got the system on the right track, the company was able to close another DC employing 80 people and consolidate those operations into its Eudora facility without hiring any additional staff.

Sheppard says the company's ongoing investments have put Superior Uniform in a good position to increase its sales with existing customers and to grow.

"If we're shipping a lot of our orders same day and the rest the following day. There's not a lot our competitors can do to beat that," he says.

Superior Uniform At a Glance

  • Age of company: 86
  • Years facility has been in operation: 40
  • Total square footage: 218,000 sq. ft.
  • Annual revenues: $133 million
  • Days of operation per week: 5 days (3 shifts)
  • Number of employees: 322
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