Transport Packaging: Containers Double as Picking System

July 1, 2006
A temporary storage measure turns into a long-term order fulfillment solution.

Central Tent Company-(Santa Clarita, Calif.) found a way to get more than just storage from its bulk box containers.

"We were moving from an old distribution center into a new building in a newly industrialized area of the city," explains Sue Wolf, vice president of operations. "What we did not anticipate was the lengthy permitting process we would encounter for our pallet racking system."

As this area of southern California transitions from wealthy residential to light industrial, the whole permitting process is new for city officials, and more tedious than Central Tent anticipated. The fire codes and building codes are understandably strict. As moving day fast approached, and no racking permits for the new distribution center had been issued, managers started thinking inside the box to solve their potential parts-storage problems.

More than just a storage box
Every day Central Tent ships 200 to 300 large tents, the kind used for entertainment events. Its customers are rental companies throughout the U.S. and Canada. It manufactures the tents and accessories in Thailand and ships them to Southern California via sea containers.

Previously, the tents and a vast array of stainless steel fittings, ratchet ropes and stakes, were placed on pallets and located in racks for order picking. "We were visiting a major rental company here in California," says Wolf, "and saw how it was using plastic boxes to contain its rental tents and accessories. We figured we could do the same."

The 100 boxes it purchased from Buckhorn (Myers Industries, Akron, Ohio) are not standard issue. The 48 x 45 x 50-inch bulk boxes feature reinforced steel bottoms and dropdown sides. Weight was a concern because full boxes can weigh as much as 4,000 pounds.

When the boxes arrived, concerns about business disruptions from a lack of permitting began to fade. "The first benefit we realized from the containers," says Wolf, "was the fact that we could stack them without the necessity of racking or permits."

The decision was made, while waiting for the racking permits, the boxes would be stacked four high. (Now they are stacked five high.) In the process Central Tent managed to create a highly flexible picking system for order fulfillment.

How orders are selected
Currently, human-readable labels are placed on the containers to identify parts. Since containers are constantly being reused to hold different parts, paper seemed like the most flexible way to identify what is in the box. Working from a pick sheet, the order selector locates the hardware required to set up one of the massive tents. A man-aboard order picking truck raises the person to any containers above ground level. Hardware and other items are removed from the plastic containers and placed into wooden crates or large corrugated containers for shipping. When all of the hardware and fixture items of an order have been selected, vinyl tops and side curtains are added to the shipping container.

"The drop doors on both sides of the containers are another real benefit," says Wolf. "It's so much easier for the order pickers to get inventory out of the bottom of the container if they don't have to lean down in. And we can access items from any container in the stack without moving any other container."

Wolf adds that the containers have worked so well and return on the investment has been so fast, the company is purchasing another 100 units to manage the increased demand and expanding inventory of the distribution center. "I can foresee a time when we might eventually be able to ship tents and all the hardware in these containers," says Wolf.

For now, the containers do the job they were purchased for, managing inventory, as well as their new function as an integral part of the order fulfillment system.

Bulk containers, more commonly used for storage, are a major part of a flexible picking and order fulfillment system of Central Tent.

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