Polishing Links in the Chain

Dec. 1, 2006
A bike maker’s investment in new software and automation put it on a path to aggressive growth and operational efficiencies.

What's the best way to reinvent a technology that is more than 200 years old? In the bicycle trade it's with newer technology. And that's what Quality Bicycle Products (QBP, Bloomington, Minn.) is doing throughout its distribution center with an addition to its warehouse management software and automated material handling system.

This company's environmentally aware culture rewards employees who ride bikes to work, offers profit sharing and fosters furry friendships via a bring-your-dog-to-work program. It also fits a business that sells bicycle parts. It's inside the building, however, where new technology improves order fulfillment and the company's bottom-line results.

"We have a 195,000-square-foot distribution center where we pick an average of 18,000 order lines per day," says Scott Chambers, distribution director. That number of lines can increase to 26,000 in peak season. The SKUs range in size from the tiniest nuts and bolts on a bicycle, to non-conveyable items such as bike frames and roof racks. This distribution center is responsible for same-day shipping to the entire country, with about 60% of its order volume on Monday and Tuesday. Its products go to thousands of bicycle shops around the country. As the popularity of bicycling grows, so does the proliferation of SKUs.

Follow the Flow

Products arriving at the distribution center are either domestically manufactured or imported. Imports make up about 70% of the current inventory.

"The domestic product all comes in palletized," says Chambers. "However, the imported product arrives as multiple purchase orders, all floor-loaded in sea containers." The sortation process, using purchase order numbers, is assisted by advance shipping notices (ASNs), to initially divide incoming product and determine putaway locations: high-bay reserve locations, very-narrow aisle storage, or, for cross-docking directly to forward pick locations to fulfill immediate order requirements.

The 16 picking zones of the DC are viewed as four distinct picking areas. The non-conveyables area is co-located within the high-bay reserve storage locations. These products are batched by SKU for greater picking productivity. The other three areas are designed to accommodate distinct classes of products and fulfillment velocities.

Within the major areas are several pick zones accommodating special requirements. For different kinds of products, or to flow specific products, a variety of storage media are used. These include wide-span shelving, high-density bin shelving, horizontal carousels, high-velocity carton flow racks and pallet flow racks.

To begin the order fulfillment process, HighJump Warehouse Advantage WMS (HighJump, Minneapolis) calculates the total volume of product comprising an order. Based on that calculation, the order might be picked concurrently in separate totes in some or all of the three picking areas, or into a single tote.

QBP makes use of the UPC (universal price code) label already on the item's packaging. "We use RF devices to send the order picker to a specific location," explains Chambers, "then scan the UPC to verify the right item has been

Within each of the picking areas, orders will be picked and totes passed through multiple zones. Single totes move through all areas and zones until an order is complete. Totes are then delivered to packing stations.

If an order requires multiple totes, the totes are consolidated (married) along several collating, or accumulating, conveyor lines. When consolidation is complete, totes are automatically released to a packing station.

Packed cartons move along an accumulation conveyor to multiple in-line manifesting stations. After manifesting, cartons pass through automatic carton tapers and sealed cartons are then conveyed to the dock for loading onto trucks.

"We do a location sort and ship about 95% of our products via UPS," says Chambers. "It parks two, sometimes three, trailers at our dock and we fill them. One trailer is primarily for the non-conveyables, the other for parcels." Supervisors are responsible for balancing the outbound work load (by zone) with available labor to help ensure optimal productivity and throughput.

Good stewards

In all of its operations, QBP makes a conscious effort to reduce its impact on the environment. It is working on Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings.

Quality Bicycle Products at a Glance

  • Age of company: 25 years
  • Years this facility has been in operation: 10 years
  • Total square footage: 195,000
  • Annual revenues: Private, undisclosed
  • Days of operation per week: 5 days, 2 shifts
  • Number of employees: 300

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