It's always "growing season" at Four Seasons Produce. The Ephrata, Pa.-based distributor will deliver more than 11 million cases of produce this year, including organics, in bulk and custom packaging for domestic and export markets. Warehouse management software and voice-recognition technology has helped the company move to a new level of customer service.
Four Seasons serves independent grocers, chains and the food service industry. It knows its business depends on providing the freshest fruits and vegetables to its customers. It's a matter of reputation, which is why it installed Priya Smart Warehouse Software from Motek Inc. (Beverly Hills, Calif.) and Vocollect Inc.'s (Pittsburgh, Pa.) voice-recognition hardware.
"Most people say you should drive up volumes in order to be able to afford to automate; but the opposite is true. Once you integrate technology with your business, you can really drive up volume," say Nelson Longenecker, vice president of business innovation at Four Seasons.
Over the years, the company added additional warehouses to support growth. Eventually, it had five facilities, four for storage and repacking, and one for shipping. "Product for daily orders had to be pulled from multiple buildings, transferred to a central shipping warehouse, slotted, selected and loaded onto trucks," Longenecker says. "We ran into traffic delays and other problems, and were constantly under tremendous time pressure."
To make matters worse, Four Seasons ran its distributed warehouse operation using manual processes. This meant staff tracked inventory manually by keying in the quantity received, transferred, and shipped, and applying labels to every box for shipping. "With so many manual transactions taking place, we suffered from significant errors and were always one step behind the product," Longenecker says. "It wasn't uncommon to lose track of whole pallets, which affected service levels and ate into profits."
While these inefficiencies are a concern in any business, they're particularly troubling in produce where entire inventories turn every four or five days, and products are received and shipped within 24 hours of receipt. The challenge to keep produce fresh adds another level of complexity to this mission-critical operation.
Realizing technology was the only sure route to continued growth, Four Seasons management decided to consolidate into one automated distribution center (DC). The new DC, one of the largest produce warehouses in the Northeast, opened in 2004. The 262,000-sq.-ft. DC has 180,000 sq.-ft. of cold storage and 34 dock doors.
Additionally, the facility receives and distributes railcar loads of fresh produce from the West Coast.
The DC was designed to maximize space and provide an optimal climate for a variety of produce. It has a high-cube storage design that enables four-level high pallet racking. Four Seasons uses 12 Raymond high-lifts to put away freshly received product, replenish pick faces and select full pallet orders. The DC can hold more than 7,000 pallets in a variety of room conditions.
Produce has to be stored by humidity, temperature and ethylene sensitivity. Ethylene affects the rate at which fruit and vegetables ripen. Four Seasons' distribution center has a complex configuration to accommodate all of these factors. The placement of the rooms determines how pallets are built. In the produce industry, pallets are built of many different-size cases and bags. Four Seasons asked its selectors to help develop the sequence of rooms in the facility. The path they developed follows the route selectors would take to build a pallet as they progress through the building. The assignment pick path range is up to 3,000 ft.
To increase the accuracy and timeliness of shipments to customers, Four Seasons implemented Priya WMS integrated with Vocollect Talk-man voice recognition hardware. With their hands free, pickers using radio-frequency headsets can perform work faster and more accurately. Four Seasons increased its average case picking of 150 cases per man/hour to 220 cases per man/ hour. Errors per 10,000 cases decreased from 40 to 12.
Because Priya is configurable, the software matches the way Four Seasons replenishes and cross-docks. Putaway rules include temperature, humidity and ethylene-sensitivity parameters. "The big challenge with any WMS that has a lot of configurability is that it takes a while to learn," Longenecker says. "It is not just plug and play." Four Seasons has developed a strong internal team to manage and run the software.
Priya can be made as simple or as complex as users need it to be. The software can be configured to read the expiration date in the lot code to make sure product is properly rotated and released. The lot coding also tracks where product is stored in the warehouse and where it was distributed to in case of a product recall.
Prior to implementing Priya, Four Seasons was using labor management software that let it create an incentive program for its employees. The incentive program is based on a dollar amount employees can earn over their base salary for performing above the engineered standard that was established through time and motion studies. Four Seasons is continuing this program with Priya's Engineered Labor standard module. The program enables Four Seasons' associates to earn up to 50% more than their base rate by working fast and accurately.
Four Seasons' strategic use of Priya WMS and Vocollect voice technology has reduced mispicks and increased ship fill levels and inventory accuracy. "Our service levels and sales have both grown dramatically since implementing the warehouse management system," Longenecker says.
Using hands-free Vocollect voice technology, Motek's WMS has enabled Four Seasons to increase its selector productivity by 38%.