August 24, 2015
special report | Facility Planning and Design

High spirits

High spirits

Wine and spirits distributor RNDC found the answer to its space crunch—and throughput woes—in an innovative new DC that features mezzanines and state-of-the-art conveyors.

By David Maloney

Not so long ago, wine and spirits distributor Republic National Distributing Co. (RNDC) found itself facing the classic growth challenge&8212;at least where its distribution operations were concerned. RNDC, which is the second-largest distributor of wine and spirits in the U.S., had seen sales explode in one of its key markets: Virginia.

That kind of exponential growth is great for the bottom line, but it can create problems elsewhere in the organization. In this case, it was the company's DC in Sandston, Va., that was feeling the strain. Basically, RNDC had outgrown the facility, and building out was not an option. The Sandston building had already been expanded in 2001, says Stefan Kirshenbaum, RNDC's vice president of operations systems and services, and the lot didn't allow for further expansion.

Filling orders on time was also becoming a challenge. Space limitations prevented the operation from deploying the kind of technology that would allow it to achieve the productivity and accuracy levels it wanted. And the building's size limited the amount of merchandise that could be pushed through it in a day. "We just grew out of it, plain and simple. We needed to move forward to a new distribution space," Kirshenbaum says.

After conducting a site search, the company found a suitable spot some 30 miles north of Sandston in Ashland, Va. The new location offered 23 acres to grow in as well as proximity to Interstate 95. The move would also put it a bit closer to the growth markets in Northern Virginia.

Opened in February, the new facility has a footprint of 280,000 square feet but offers 315,000 square feet of processing space when you include the mezzanines. The site provides ample room for expansion, with enough space to enlarge the facility to well over half a million square feet if needed.

The facility's material handling system was designed by W&H Systems, which also integrated the equipment. The new setup includes new automated equipment to speed up processing, including a voice-directed picking system and conveyors and sorters that gently handle cases of bottles. A camera system also assures shipping accuracy, and smart software keeps it all flowing with the smoothness of fine Kentucky bourbon.


For many of the products arriving at the new Ashland facility, the first stop is the reserve area, which contains both floor and rack storage and some high-density pushback racking. As the name implies, the pushback racks are designed so that when a lift truck operator loads a new pallet into the front of the rack, the previously loaded pallets are pushed backward along a rail. The facility's pushback racks range from two to four pallets deep, allowing the company to make optimal use of storage space. When a pallet is removed, the remaining pallets behind gently slide forward to make it easy to retrieve subsequent pallets. Advance Storage Products provided the pushback racks along with flow racks and other static storage units in the building.

Reserve items are used to replenish three modules&8212;two that are used for full-case picking and one for individual bottle selection. The Jennifer voice system from Lucas directs all of the picking activity. The Shiraz warehouse control system (WCS) supplied by W&H Systems determines picking waves, working in conjunction with Manhattan Associates' warehouse management software. The waves are based on multiple tiers of algorithms that consider product and delivery route. Picking for six trucks can be performed at the same time within the wave. Orders for each truck are picked in reverse delivery sequence so that the order for the first stop is loaded onto the truck last.

Pallet flow racks hold full cases of fast-moving items, while slower-moving cases are presented to workers in case flow rack locations. In both instances, workers select the cases onto a belt that runs through the middle of the two case picking modules, following directions transmitted by the Jennifer voice system. Each worker is also supplied with a stack of customer labels that are printed to match the picking sequence that the Jennifer system provides to him or her. Combining voice with the labels is much faster than simply using pick-by-label selection, since the worker does not have to stop to read locations off of the labels. Instead, the associate can be moving as he or she is listening to the voice prompts, saving valuable seconds with each pick.

Once a worker arrives at the appropriate section, he or she recites a check digit to confirm the location and then removes the number of cases required, placing a customer label onto each before depositing it onto the takeaway conveyor belt. The voice system then directs the picker to the next location.

Meanwhile, the conveyor transports the selected cases through a five-sided scan tunnel that matches the customer label and the product UPC label to assure that the right product has been selected.


The bottle pick area is specifically designed for fast throughput. A setup that combines flow racks, the voice system, and other material handling equipment allows for an average of 600 bottles to be picked per person per hour, which is one of the highest picking rates in the wine and spirits industry.

Two conveyor lines run through the bottle pick module. An "express line" is used for faster-moving products, which are selected only from the bottom level of the two-level module. This constitutes about 85 percent of the individual bottle picks made here. The DC uses the pick-and-pass order selection method in the bottle pick area, with workers selecting bottles within their zones from deep-flow racks and then passing the order carton along to the next worker for additional selections.

A carton erector builds a box to begin the process. The voice system then takes over to direct picking. First, a worker reads a carton ID into the voice system to match the carton to the products it will contain. The voice system then tells the worker the quantity of bottles to select from each location. Again, a check digit is used to confirm the right items were picked. Completed cartons are conveyed to a quality assurance area, where randomly selected cartons are checked against actual orders.

The remaining 15 percent of bottle picks consist of both fast- and slower-moving items. These are picked onto a conveyor belt known as the "local line." Pick-and-pass is also employed here, with the carton passed through the various pick zones and bottles added to it. In some cases, the cartons require additional items from the second level, where most of the DC's medium-movers are stored on flow racks. In such cases, the cartons are placed on an AmbaFlex spiral conveyor, which whisks them to the next level.

The facility's 4,000 slow-moving stock-keeping units (SKUs) are stored in static shelving. Two cases per SKU are housed in each slot on the shelves. When needed, bottles from the shelving are batch picked onto rolling carts that can hold from 100 to 120 bottles in numbered locations. The voice system directs picking from the racks and also tells the worker where on the cart to place the bottle.

Once the batch has been picked, the voice system instructs the worker to push the cart to a station near the quality assurance area on the second level. The voice system then directs bottles to be removed and combined as needed with items selected for each customer order.

After undergoing quality checks, the orders are conveyed to an Intelligrated sliding shoe sorter designed for the gentle handling of cartons filled with glass bottles. The sorter carefully diverts the cartons to six dock positions. To assure that the right carton is loaded onto the right truck, the company installed a camera capture system from Blue Violet Networks at the docks. Tied to the warehouse control system, the system uses cameras to capture three distinct views of each carton. To resolve discrepancies, an operator can dial in a carton number and see exactly which truck the carton was loaded into.


Ashland is one of four new distribution centers that RNDC is building within a 12-month period. Several existing facilities are also undergoing renovations. Many of these will incorporate similar designs, with the goal of duplicating the impressive gains that the Ashland facility has recorded in just half a year of operation.

Ashland can process some 3,200 cases per hour, which is double the rate achieved in the previous facility. Plus, orders are shipping on time, which has virtually eliminated overtime, and accuracy is at an all-time high. And there is room to grow, as the material handling systems can handle up to 3,600 cases per hour at peak. "We did not expect to be hitting the throughput numbers this quickly," notes Kirshenbaum. "It has produced a lot of smiles from top to bottom. I truly believe we hit a home run here."

About the Author

David Maloney
Editorial Director
David Maloney has been a journalist for more than 35 years and is currently the editorial director for DC Velocity and Supply Chain Quarterly magazines. In this role, he is responsible for the editorial content of both brands of Agile Business Media. Dave joined DC Velocity in April of 2004. Prior to that, he was a senior editor for Modern Materials Handling magazine. Dave also has extensive experience as a broadcast journalist. Before writing for supply chain publications, he was a journalist, television producer and director in Pittsburgh. Dave combines a background of reporting on logistics with his video production experience to bring new opportunities to DC Velocity readers, including web videos highlighting top distribution and logistics facilities, webcasts and other cross-media projects. He continues to live and work in the Pittsburgh area.

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