With sales growing at double-digit levels and more and more items being added to its product line, the company needed an answer to a demanding order-processing challenge. And it needed one fast.
Orders for the company's veterinarian equipment and supplies-which include vaccines and drugs requiring strict controls-were pouring in at a record clip. But the company's outmoded distribution facility was struggling to keep pace with the rising demand.
Order pickers had to go through the warehouse with shopping carts, moving from area to area, and shelf to shelf. Once the picking was complete, they then had to push the shopping carts back to a central packing table. Then after the packing was finished, the orders had to be moved by hand to the shipping area.
This discrete picking approach was far too slow and much too labor intensive for a company growing this fast. It involved an excessive amount of physical handling and movement around the facility-most of which was done manually. In fact, the only conveyorized equipment was a small roller conveyor line in the shipping area.
For the company, a family-owned company founded in the early 1960s, the answer to its product-flow problem lied in a simple-but-effective conveyorized system. Today, Hytrol conveyors swiftly and efficiently move orders through every stage of the order-fulfillment process-from initial printing of the order to final preparation of the package for delivery to customers. The company's veterinarian customers are located in a ten-state region encompassing Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
The advantages of the new conveyorized system have been striking. Order throughput is up approximately 20 percent compared to the old manual order-fulfillment method. Importantly, this productivity increase has been achieved without having to add personnel. The new system also allows warehouse management to more effectively control the workflow and to position people throughout the facility in response to order demand. Overall, shipments flow in a more organized and orderly fashion.
The conveyor solution was actually part of a total reengineering project done for the company by the Hytrol Integration Partner. Initially, the client was considering simply adding a few conveyor lines to eliminate some of the manual handling and reduce travel time throughout the facility. But it soon become apparent that more was needed if the company was to keep pace with its booming sales.
The Hytrol Integration Partner was asked to do a broader reengineering study. The findings recommended a complete reconfiguration of the facility, which included the addition of a mezzanine level for order-picking as well as the implementation of Hytrol conveyor equipment to streamline and expedite order flow. The company accepted the recommendations and the project was implemented over a three-month period.
Order processing now begins on the mezzanine level, where the invoice (which also serves as the picking list) is generated. The orders are printed out based on the carrier to be used-UPS, priority shipment, or the company's own delivery trucks. The orders also are broken out by picking zones. There are four zones: Zone 1 is on the mezzanine, and Zones 2 through 4 are on the ground level.
Orders move through the warehouse in totes. Picking begins at the mezzanine level, where many of the company's fast-moving items are shelved. The totes are placed on accumulating conveyors while pickers retrieve the needed products. Once all of the items from this first zone have been picked, the totes are placed onto a live roller takeaway conveyor. This horizontal power conveyor moves the orders down a decline conveyor segment to the picking stations on the ground floor, where they roll onto an accumulating conveyor.
Orders that are complete move directly onto a live takeaway conveyor that leads to the packing and shipping area. All other totes remain on the ground-level accumulating conveyors until the order is complete and can proceed to the next station.
The takeaway conveyors efficiently move the completed tote orders to the packing area. Hytrol diverters at the end of the takeaway send each tote to one of three packing stations based on the method of shipping (UPS, priority, or delivery truck). The packers take the totes off the live conveyors, double check the orders, and then pack the products in corrugated box using bubble wrap for protection. Any excess space in the box is then filled with protective styrofoam.
The packing specialists are responsible for including any equipment and pharmaceuticals that may be part of the order. They're also responsible for adding temperature-controlled items such as vaccines. These are wrapped in styrofoam boxes with gel packets to keep them refrigerated.
Once carefully packaged and double checked, the completed orders are placed back into the totes and move on a live roller conveyor to the last stop in the order-handling process--the manifest and shipping station. All of the manifesting and shipping paperwork is done on computer here. The completed order now is ready for shipment to the company's customer. Though activity levels vary somewhat depending on the time of year, the facility averages about 900 orders per day.
The company is pleased with the performance to date and is looking to achieve further enhancements down the road as the operation is "tweaked." "This conveyorized system is much more efficient than our old method," concludes the director of warehousing. "Before, we had people moving orders all around the warehouse. Now the work comes to them."
The order-fulfillment process starts at the mezzanine level. Pickers place all orders from this initial picking zone into totes then travel on a takeaway conveyor to the ground level where additional picking takes place. Once complete, the orders move on another takeaway conveyor to the packing stations. Diverters send the totes into one of three lanes depending on the shipping mode. The packers ready the order for shipment, adding protective wrapping and styrofoam to prevent product damage. Orders are shipped via UPS, priority express carrier, or company delivery trucks.