Picking Up the PiecesSmartly

June 18, 2007
Of technologies available to automate warehouse operations, pick-to-light enjoys success by boosting picker productivity with increased speed and accuracy

Of technologies available to automate warehouse operations, pick-to-light enjoys success by boosting picker productivity with increased speed and accuracy of picks. That translates into better system throughput.

In general, here's how pick-to-light works: Light indicator modules are mounted on storage areas. When a product stored in the location is needed, a light flashes. The worker picks the product and then presses the light button to confirm the pick. The system is paperless, so operators don't need to take their eyes off the work at hand.

Getting away from a paper based picking system was a major plus for Steve Eckman, vice president of Corporate Development for Beauty Brands, Inc. (www.beautybrands.com) as company growth led to a move from a leased location to its present 140,000 sq ft distribution center (DC) in Lexana, KS. He explains that Beauty Brands is a specialty retailer with 7,000-8,000 sq ft full service salons and day spas in premier locations. The company is regionalized in the central part of the United States, with salons ranging from Phoenix, AZ to Charlotte, NC and everywhere in between. It serves 13 markets from its 50 different stores.

Beauty Brands builds its new store packages at its DC. "We are direct with almost every one of our manufacturers," notes Eckman. "So we get large shipments inbound, process them at the DC and ship less than truckload (LTL) daily to the stores. We have just the one DC where we receive everything and put it in inventory, with very few things cross-docked. Right now we stick with salon-exclusive products, only authorized to be sold and recommended by licensed professionals. Most locations just get one shipment a week. If there are promotional items to be sold, sometimes they will receive a separate promotional shipment."

The company uses a well known retail host enterprise system. Eckman says the system had a warehouse module that came with the package. Beauty Brands tried it out since they already had it. "There are probably 36 steps that have to completed to move a product," he says, "and it is paper-based."

To solve the operational issues, Eckman then worked with consulting companies and determined that most of them were aligned with specific suppliers. "We didn't want to get into that game," he claims. "I found some independent consultants that weren't tied to any the suppliers. We started with a list of some 30 providers of software for the warehouse and finally selected Warehouse Librarian from Intek (www.intek.com). It's a stable, midrange, flexible system. We chose the IPTI (Innovative Picking Technologies, Inc.-www.ipti.net) pick-to-light system that integrated very easily into our operations."

Eckman likes the fact that training on the pick-to-light system is very easy. Parts of the system are interchangeable. Managers can just pop one part out and put another in. Picking zones that incorporate pick-to-light have error rates that are substantially lower than any other place in the DC.

"What IPTI said they were going to do at what price, they did exactly that," claims Eckman. "They were on time which was very important since I had a time frame for bringing this new DC on line that meant it had to be done in six months from start to finish. Most thought it would take a year. But we had to be out of the old facility and I only had a four day leeway. "

When asked in which zone they like to work, pickers will choose the pick-to-light section. "I built this facility from the ground up," notes Eckman, "and put a mezzanine in. I can duplicate all flow zones—and half them are pick-to-light—up on the mezzanine. When I do that, all the other zones on the floor will go to pick-to-light."

Being successful in the on-line grocery delivery business in the United States has been challenging for a number of companies over the past years. Big name food chains have tried and failed in this particular market niche. One enjoying success is Minneapolis-St. Paul's SimonDelivers (www.simondelivers.com), that started in business in 1999. Proper product picks play a major part in contributing to the company's success.

There are other reasons the company is succeeding where others have failed. "One key differentiator is that we've stayed close to our base while we figured out how to do this on-line grocery business," says the vice president of Operations, Chris Servais. "Many of the other spectacular flame-outs had multimarkets going and were losing money in all of them."

SimonDelivers serves the 3,500 square mile geographic area surrounding the Twin Cities. Most orders come in before 11 pm the prior night and are delivered during the morning, afternoon and evening hours of the next day.

The company owns its own fleet. "We've chosen to outsource things we don't feel are core competencies," explains Servais, "like fleet maintenance, tractor-trailer movements to pick up goods at our stores and to move goods from our DC to our single cross dock facility about 28 miles from here. BearingPoint hosts our web site. Those things that we deem important, such as customer service, we keep here.

The company's main grocery wholesaler is Supervalu located just nine miles from the facility. SimonDelivers buys goods from Sam's Club and Costco, catering companies, bakeries, wine and spirit purveyors and so forth. The company tries to partner with local sources. All product comes to its DC where it goes into a forward slotting situation.

"Our operation is relatively close to just in time," explains Servais. "When an order arrives we use SAP for order entry and processing, Our warehouse management system is High Jump. The orders flow down from SAP into the WMS. At the same time they flow into our UPS logistics technology software. It's here that we optimize routes. Then sequence numbers and routing is put into the WMS. At that point we create waves for picking and also print labels for our picking process. The labels are essentially tickets that go into a tote." The average customer receives about five totes in an order.

SimonDelivers uses a pick-to-light system from Lightning Pick Technologies (www.lightningpick.com) in its cooler and freezer environment. A tote comes into the zone. The shopper scans the container and the light tree illuminates those items to select. The pick is made and confirmed and the items are put into the tote. Servais claims an accuracy level in the cooler and freezer area at 99.8%.

For dry goods, Servais is examining different technologies, trying to figure out what will be optimal for the SimonDelivers business model. "We use a put-to-light system," he explains. "It's a radio frequency-enabled shopping cart that holds as many as six customer orders. As it is pushed through our dry picking module the screen on the PC mounted on the cart directs the shopper to a location to select an item. The item is picked. The shopper then scans the UPC code and on the top level of the cart is a light bar system that will be illuminated to tell the shopper in which tote the item belongs. Our accuracy level in the put-to-light area is 99.93%. The gap exists because some items like bananas don't have bar codes. The put-to-light system was developed in conjunction with Lightning Pick."

"We scan the UPC to validate the picking accuracy which is so vital for our customers," says Servais. "With 41-43 items in our grocery delivery basket, if one item needed for a recipe is missing and it causes them to go to a traditional store, we become much less important and risk losing customers. It's really important for our business to be 100% accurate."

Picking, then scanning the UPC code aids accuracy.

A light bar flashes, telling operators where to find the next pick.

Reach for the Sky
Work platforms and other related equipment can be customized, manufactured or converted for specific picking uses. For larger distribution centers, aerial work platforms put the operator in a pick car. The platform, mounted on a self-propelled base, moves from one location to another on a fixed track between storage racks. For stock retrieval, the platform moves upward and downward as required.

From LPI Lift Systems (www.lip-inc.com), the unit can move along the rails at 225 fpm and has a starting and stopping ramping system. The platform may move up and down as quickly as 90 fpm.

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