Harley-Davidson Revs Up Distribution

May 1, 2001
A retrofitted pick-to-light system lets Harley take on more SKUs at its 250,000-square-foot distribution center in Franklin, Wisconsin.

Harley-Davidson Revs Up Distribution

A retrofitted pick-to-light system lets Harley take on more SKUs.

edited by Leslie Langnau, senior technical editor

When you need to handle more, a retrofit can be the ideal way to go. Such was the case for Harley-Davidson. Retrofitting a pick-to-light system is helping the motorcycle heavyweight throttle up efficiency and productivity at its parts and accessories distribution center in Franklin, Wisconsin.

Installed in March 2000, the Lightning Pick system from Professional Control Corp. (PCC) accelerated productivity by nine percent while maintaining order-filling accuracy at 99.7 percent — with virtually no system downtime.

Approximately 21,000 part numbers ship from the 250,000-square-foot distribution center. These part numbers describe service parts and accessories that go to more than 600 domestic Harley-Davidson dealers, as well as to numerous distributors, dealers, subsidiaries and customers worldwide. Turnaround times are rigorous, with about 85 percent of all domestic orders shipped the same day they are received.

Mounted in a 300-foot-long, three-story mezzanine, the Lightning Pick system manages nearly 4,000 of the fastest-moving inventory items — between 55 percent and 60 percent of the distribution center’s entire daily volume. Picking is done for 16-20 hours a day, with the third shift reserved primarily for product replenishment. Depending on the season, the number of pickers on the system can range from four to 11 during the day, to as many as 24 during the peak picking period.

"We had capacity issues, a growing proliferation of SKUs and fast-moving parts. Our pick-to-light is our most productive picking module. Therefore, we asked our previous supplier about expanding the system it installed a few years ago to increase the capacity on the third level," notes Mike Mueller, director of parts & accessories physical distribution, Harley-Davidson. "We wanted to add 990 new locations to our approximately 2,800 existing locations. It was unable to meet our request, so we decided to consider alternative suppliers."

At the same time, Professional Control Corp. contacted Mueller about Lightning Pick. "It sounded very interesting," says Mueller. "PCC could control the number of lights and locations; its software had a lot of flexibility for dynamic rezoning, and it provided 24/7 service.

"They also assured us they could meet our aggressive installation schedule," Mueller adds. "From the outset we stressed that we could not have any service interruptions, and we needed to be up and running and have some experience with the system before the start of our busy shipping season."

Thus, not only was the system expanded, PCC replaced the old system as well. The new third level of the mezzanine was installed first. Notes Stan Marin, continuous improvement engineer, Harley-Davidson, "We were able to pre-build part of the system while continuing to operate our existing first and second floors. This allowed us to do some testing and, more importantly, some training. Our employees became familiar with the system by picking dummy orders, which was key to productivity once the entire system went on-line."

The installation of the lower two tiers was completed over one weekend. "It was incredible," Marin remarks. "We turned off the system at 3 p.m. on a Friday, had all the 2,800 old lights ripped out by 9 p.m., and the new Lightning Pick light modules installed by midnight.

"PCC personnel stayed overnight connecting ribbon cable and junction boxes," he adds. "Our installers came back Saturday morning, and by 3 p.m. the hardware installation was completed. Then we started to test and tweak the software. By 11 a.m. Sunday we were in production, picking parts in the system — with no problems whatsoever."

"For PCC to come in and understand our operation, develop the application and put it all together in one weekend — I’ve never seen anything like it," says Mike Szymik, senior site support specialist. "To see that many different skill sets on one team is remarkable."

Best of all, the Lightning Pick system delivered the benefits Harley hoped for. "In terms of the accuracy of the orders that leave this building, we’re maintaining our quality at a level that has exceeded our goals of 99.1 percent to 99.7 percent," says Mueller. "We’ve also seen our throughput and productivity improve by nine percent. Greater productivity, faster order filling, reduced downtime — they’ve all helped us maintain our shipping response times."

The system’s flexibility has been another plus. Based on a Windows NT platform, it can be reconfigured via software to accommodate changing needs. Through dynamic rezoning, for example, the current 80-foot picking zones can be split to reduce picker walking and further improve productivity. The system is scalable, making it easy to add light modules and scanners. And data from the SQL database can be downloaded to Excel and manipulated off-line, to ensure that picking and shipping operations continue uninterrupted.

System maintenance has essentially been a non-issue. "With our old system, downtime was a problem," Szymik notes. "The new system is up 99 percent of the time. And on the few occasions when we’ve had problems, it’s been very quick to recover. The application is written to be intuitive, so it’s easy to read and troubleshoot. And we can continue picking even when there are problems on the server."

"The software and hardware have not missed a beat," adds Marin. "Initially we had to swap a few light modules, which we expected because of the rapid pace of installation. Since then, though, we’ve replaced just a handful of lights."

"The old hardware was very sensitive to people just brushing up against it or bumping it with scanning guns," Szymik says. "We were constantly replacing lights. Now, even if we lose a light, which is rare, people can keep working."

The process of swapping lights is easy. "You turn off a single zone instead of an entire aisle, and it’s a two-minute change," Marin says.

And the pickers love the new system. "It’s easier for them to see the lights," states Marin. "Since everything’s connected serially, system response times are quicker, which helps improve productivity, and, ultimately, customer service."

The pickers had a say in what went in. "With any project involving new equipment, we believe that the work groups who will be working with the equipment should help select it," notes Marin. "So the pickers played an integral role in system selection and installation. We took them on site visits to competitive installations, as well as to PCC. And the work groups had to sign off before I submitted our selection for further approvals."

"Our pickers also love the fact that their interface is now a Welch-Allen scanning gun," says Marin. "The cordless Welch-Allen guns are light, nicely balanced and easy to handle, and simple to use, since pickers don’t have to select functions. Plus, the guns can be recharged by plugging the battery into any standard 110-volt socket.

"We will probably participate in new pick-to-light advances that PCC brings to us," says Mueller. "Beyond that, we’re looking to them to help us get into more new technology. Pick-to-cart technology is coming down the road, and we’re looking into that for some of our picking systems." MHM