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Redesigned DC is a nice fit for Blair

May 5, 2005
At Blair's redesigned DC, a conveyor system dubbed the "waterfall" drops product down to the conveyor below to offload into pre-determined chutes. After

At Blair's redesigned DC, a conveyor system dubbed the "waterfall" drops product down to the conveyor below to offload into pre-determined chutes.

After a nice run of 30 years, apparel retailer Blair Corp. (www.blair.com) decided it was time to upgrade its warehouse, originally designed in 1972. The 560,000 square foot warehouse, with its conveyors and tilttray shipping sorter, wasn't keeping pace with Blair's move to multichannel marketing and distribution.

Blair's automated warehouse system had been designed to handle 25,000 to 30,000 mostly single-item orders per day. However, as volumes and order complexity grew, picking multi-item orders increasingly presented problems. Those were the higher revenue orders and just the type of customer Blair didn't want to disappoint.

The existing system was operating three shifts, seven days a week to keep pace with orders. Growth, fueled in part by Internet sales, needed to be addressed, as well as peak demand periods.

A 310,000 square-foot structure previously used to prepare and ship direct mailings was converted to meet current needs. It was connected to the warehouse by a 400-foot-long, 20-foot-high elevated bridge to convey product to and from the existing building (which could now be used solely for receiving, warehousing and picking).

Siemens Logistics and Assembly Systems Inc. (www. logisticsassembly.siemens.com) was called on to help redesign the systems supporting Blair's distribution operation. The resulting system featured a cross-belt conveying line to bring multi-piece orders together and improve tilt-tray operations. A specialty conveying line was installed. It was dubbed the "waterfall" (see photo) because product goes through a series of conveyors, dropping down to the conveyor below to offload product at pre-determined chutes.

Routing labels on each item are scanned throughout the pick-andpack process, and pieces of an order are routed so that they arrive at the appropriate chute within a specified time. A photo sensor is triggered when the chute is full. This eliminated the need for pushers or other devices that could jam or damage product.

Software instructions for the warehouse management system (WMS) had to be rewritten to work with the Siemens systems. In addition, a "throttling system" allows Blair to dump a large volume of orders into the system and draw them down as needed. Prior to this, the WMS would release 100% of orders for the day. Since order volume varied daily, this created problems with staffing. Now the system helps level off peaks and provide for better manpower planning.

One measure of warehouse efficiency is the number of orders shipped per labor hour. Dividing the labor hours of the three-shift operation by the number of orders, Blair was shipping 22.2 units per labor hour. Now, it ships 24.5 units per labor hour based on triple the volume (182,000 orders per day vs. 60,000 previously) on two shifts.

Prior to the upgrade, Blair's first-day shipment of orders was 24%, day two was 40%, and the remaining 36% of orders shipped within three or more days. Now, Blair has been able to increase first-day shipments to 48% and reduce orders shipped on the third day or later to 19%.

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