A Party of Thousands

Oct. 1, 2009
Lia sophia automates order picking to support increased demand and shorten lead times.

Lia sophia is a jewelry company with products sold through a national network of independent sales contractors, known as Advisors, at jewelry parties (roughly analogous to Tupperware parties). Headquartered in Wood Dale, Ill. (near Chicago), the company’s objective is to provide exceptional support for its independent Advisors at all times.

Lia sophia sells exclusively through Advisors who receive catalogs throughout the year. Twice a year, lia sophia introduces a new product line and provides Advisors with the new literature. Generally, there’s a sales spike after the launch of a new line, but the busiest time of year is November through December. The company has experienced a high rate of growth, largely through strong branding efforts focusing on quality and affordable pricing for fashion-forward jewelry. Today, there are thousands of independent Advisors hosting jewelry parties, and additional Advisors join the network each month.

Strong growth in business placed incredible pressure on lia sophia’s 60,000-square foot facility in Bensenville, Ill. This operation was responsible for receiving bulk product, which was then inspected for quality, packaged, picked to order and then shipped to Advisors.

All material handling and order fulfillment processes were completely paper-based, and rising demand had completely exceeded the operation’s capacity.

“Paper pick tickets were very inefficient, and in general, we had outgrown the way we were doing things,” says Tom Lang, senior director of operations for lia sophia. “We needed to find a better way to handle extremely high pick densities from a smaller SKU base. Shortening lead times was a big part of our project, so we could better support our independent Advisors and their customers.”

Optimizing Fulfillment

In 2006, a new, automated 200,000-square foot distribution center was built to meet rising order volume. Packaging would remain at the original facility.

Phase 1 of the project went live in October 2006, with approximately 60% of the DC’s space being used. As the incoming holiday rush quickly stretched capacity, it became clear that Phase 2 needed to be moved up to complete building the new DC.

The new facility handles 1,200 SKUs at any given time. When Advisors place orders through the Web, an order management system from QC Software plans order picking using cartonization rules to optimize fulfillment to the best picking areas. The software’s warehouse control system module routes the containers to A-frames, a pick-to-light system, or both as required.

Phase 1 featured new A-frame technology from SI Systems, which handles the top 50% of lia sophia’s SKUs and 85% of its total volume. The mounting pressure of continually rising order volume prompted the addition of a second A-frame dispenser in Phase 2. The A-frames are mirrored for redundancy, and work can be balanced between the two.

Lia sophia uses a pick-to-belt solution from SI Systems to handle its very high volume of split-case/item-oriented picking. Orders are then sent to a pick-to-light area to pick the medium velocity SKUs; this system can also help process orders when the A-frames are running at maximum capacity.

The pick-to-light system, provided by Lightning Pick Technologies, consists of approximately 1,200 light modules across eight zones. This pick-to-light line was eventually expanded to support out-ofseason product lines, too.

Lia sophia also uses pick-to-light for its supply line with party hosting products for its independent Advisors. Originally, items like order forms and other support materials were picked from the main pick area. Over time, it became clear that it was more efficient to break these products off into their own separate pick line. Advisor supplies are popular items, so they’re kept in pallet locations. The pick-to-light system enables an operator to scan a barcode label on the order container, and lights illuminate on the pallet rack, directing them to the correct product. The picker then uses an RF scanner for pick confirmation.

Doing More With Less

When an A-frame is running low on merchandise, light modules mounted on the A-frame channels illuminate. This directs operators to a nearby flow-rack area to retrieve more product and restock the dispensers. A corresponding light module on the flow-rack location also illuminates, guiding the operator to the right product required for replenishment. The flow-rack locations store sleeves containing individually packaged units. The operator selects the right quantity of sleeves to refill the channel, using a special cardboard tray to carry multiple sleeves. The operator pushes the light module’s LED to confirm the pick was made. The sleeves are tipped right into the channel to reload product, and the light module on the channel is likewise extinguished for double confirmation that the replenishment has been completed.

Because the automated pick line sets the pace for the entire operation, Lang concentrates on total daily throughput and accuracy as key metrics instead of individual picker productivity rates. The new automated order fulfillment technologies enable the direct seller to process more orders with far lower labor costs and near-negligible errors than the previous manual method would allow.

Once order picking operations are complete, the orders are transported in cartons to the mezzanine into one of 48 lanes for final packaging. Here, orders are randomly checked for quantity and accuracy, carton dunnage is added, customer invoices and packing slips are printed and applied, and cartons move on conveyors past an automated taping machine. The now ready-to-ship cartons are transported via conveyor past a print-and-apply station, where the shipping label is automatically applied. The carton is then sorted into one of eight shipping lanes and loaded onto trucks for shipping.

Today, lia sophia processes 75,000 pieces per day and can do in excess of 300,000 during peak season. Lang estimates that the previous paper-based process would have required 300-plus people to handle the current volume. With the pick-to-light and other automated systems in place, lia sophia managed demand with approximately 80 people working in the DC.

Another benefit of adding automation was the drastic reduction in order lead times. “Purchasing our products is an emotional transaction, so people want their jewelry right away,” Lang notes. “Our stated business goal with the new facility was to get orders out of the door within three to five days. Thanks to the new systems, we’re processing orders with nearly 100% same-day turnaround.”

Lang’s DC management team also uses applications in the pick-to-light software to maintain and continuously improve the operation. For example, a notification app provides system self-health checks and creates proactive alerts for any maintenance needs that arise.

Error codes displayed throughout the pick-to-light modules are also used frequently by the lia sophia team. For example, if an operator scans the barcode label on a container to launch the pick-to-light sequence in his or her zone, the alpha-numeric bay light may display “Error 13.” This code means that an invalid label, perhaps with bad routing information, has been affixed to that shipping box. The operator then knows to handle that box differently than to just start picking into it. Various codes can alert the team to issues with zone diverts, specific location, light modules or Ethernet connectivity, among others. These diagnostic tools help lia sophia troubleshoot the system and resolve issues much more quickly.

“We were challenged to support a fast-growing network of direct sales Advisors and to meet their increased order volumes,” Lang summarizes. Fortunately, the advanced pick technologies lia sophia incorporated has helped the company ship merchandise to its Advisors faster and more accurately, while providing capacity to support planned future growth.

This article is based on material provided by lia sophia, Lightning Pick Technologies and SI Systems.

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