Natural & Organic Foods
"We wanted to increase overall productivity and improve order turnaround time so that we could serve our customer better and faster. This distribution center is accomplishing those objectives-and the Hytrol conveyor system plays a big part in that."
- VP of Distribution

Case Study Focus: Natural & Organic Food Distribution
Key System Solutions: Full & Split Case Picking, Consolidation, Quality Control
Product Handled: Natural Food Products

Since its founding, this natural & organic food distributor has enjoyed an unparalleled record of success. From its roots as a regional wholesaler of natural foods, the company has grown into the nation's leading marketer and distributor of natural and organic foods, nutritional and dietary supplements, and specialty foods. Today, the company has more than 6,000 employees and 15,000 retail customers.EZ Logic Conveyor
Distribution excellence has always been a core component of their business philosophy. Strategically located across the United States, the company's distribution centers typically maintain in-stock positions of 95 percent on more than 30,000 SKUs—a performance few specialty food distributors can match.

Nowhere is the emphasis on distribution excellence any more evident than at the company's Southeast Distribution Center. This modern 230,000 square-foot facility incorporates the latest in RF technology, an advanced Warehouse Management System, and sophisticated computer controls.  The center also features an integrated network of Hytrol conveyor equipment that streamlines the flow of orders from the picking stations through to the loading docks.

"We had several key objectives in mind when we designed the Southeast Distribution Center," says the senior vice president of distribution. "We wanted to increase overall productivity and improve order turnaround time so that we could serve our customers Overhead Conveyor better and faster. This distribution center is accomplishing those objectives-and the Hytrol conveyor system plays a big part in that." The new distribution center represents a team effort. The Hytrol Integration Partner installed the conveyor system and related controls. The company designed the building and the materials handling system. They also served as overall project manager for the installation. These two companies worked hand-in-hand with the company's operations staff.

An Integrated System

The Southeast Distribution Center incorporates a range of Hytrol conveyor and sortation equipment—all seamlessly integrated to achieve the throughput and productivity objectives. A key feature of the system is the more than 3,000 feet of EZ Logic conveyor in place. Hytrol's unique EZ Logic accumulating system effectively controls the accumulation and release of product from zone to zone.

Horizontal Belt Sorters In the each-pick section, orders are picked from cases on gravity flow racks and placed into shipping cartons or totes. Horizontal belt sorters (SC model), located on each level of the three-tier picking module, efficiently divert the cartons to the proper pick stations until the orders are complete.

Completed orders from the each-pick area merge onto EZ Logic lines and head toward the sawtooth merge. Enroute, some are diverted to a quality control spur. Prior to entering the sawtooth merge, the cartons pass through strapping machines.

Dairy and other temperature-sensitive products are picked in a separate area adjacent to the three-tier picking module. These orders move up an incline belt conveyor to a recirculation line where they join the other cartons. Gapper belts regulate the flow of all orders from the main picking lines and the recirculation conveyor through the sawtooth merge. At present, the merge is handling an average of 65 cartons a minute. It is engineered to accommodate as many as 90 cartons a minute.

Powered Decline Belt ConveyorOrders emerge from the sawtooth merge onto a single EZ Logic line. The cartons then move through a servo-gap induction system, which sets the proper spacing for them to pass through a scan tunnel and toward the ProSort sorter. This high-speed sortation system diverts the cartons down one of 12 lines. These include the main lines for truck shipments and a separate line reserved for UPS. There's also a line designated for wave control as well as three lines used to replenish product.

At the shipping lines, cartons are diverted onto a small segment of gravity skatewheel that leads to a powered decline belt conveyor. This configuration was specified over the more common all-gravity option for an important reason: The company places a premium on keeping all orders damage free during the shipping process.

Technology plays a key role in the smooth operation. Advanced WMS, PkMS®, sets inventory and allocation rules for each product. It determines what items will be picked and where, which will be sent to QC, how orders will be diverted, and so on. That information is communicated to the computer controls. The control system then interacts with the conveyor system, which executes the orders. "The computer controls, coupled with the conveyor system, help us create a streamlined order flow and more effectively manage the wave picking process."Sawtooth Merge Conveyor

Productivity & Reliability

The company has been pleased with the performance of the Southeast DC to date. Management reports that productivity levels continue to improve as they become increasingly familiar with the system. Overall reliability of the conveyor operation—a critical capability for anyone competing in the food distribution industry—has met expectations as well.

Thanks to the advanced technology in place, the new system also has given greater visibility over the entire order-flow process. Operators at the DC can spot potential congestion problems anywhere in the facility and take preventive action.

One other important aspect of the new operation bears mention—the installation experience. The Corporate Engineer explains: "For a company like ours, the timeliness of the installation is all important. When we set a date, we expect that date to be met because delays in one DC can affect the entire operation. Everyone involved in this installation lived up to that commitment."

The Distribution Center

Product flows smoothly and efficiently through the 230,000 square-foot DC. Order processing begins in the full-case picking section (which also serves as a replenishment area) and in the "each pick" section. In the three-tier each pick section, SC sorters divert the cartons to the appropriate pick stations until the order is complete. Cartons move out of the picking areas on powered conveyor with the EZ Logic accumulating feature. Some are diverted to QC for quality check. All cartons from the main picking areas proceed toward a sawtooth merge where they are joined by orders from dairy, which move on the recirculation line. The cartons move through the sawtooth merge, go through a scanning tunnel, and then move onto the ProSort sortation line. The ProSort diverts the completed orders down one of the shipping lines or down lines reserved for replenishment or future wave management.

System Hy-lites:

  • Facility Size: 230,000 square feet
  • Employees: 100
  • Product Handled: Natural food products
  • Throughput: 60-65 cases/minute (capacity 90 cases/minute)
  • Types of Conveyors: Horizontal power (ACC and ACZ models), EZ Logic (ABEZ), gapper belt, sorters (SC and Pro-Sort), sawtooth merge, incline belt (RBI), gravity.

Natural & Organic Foods Facility



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