April 11, 2017

The workers who came in from the cold

The workers who came in from the cold

In the old days, workers at Thermo Fisher Scientific had to don cold suits and brave the freezer in order to fill orders. Thanks to a redesign featuring flow racks and "deli doors," that's no longer the case.

By David Maloney

As one of the world's top manufacturers and distributors of research, laboratory, and biotechnology products, Thermo Fisher Scientific needs to move goods quickly to achieve its goal of making the world a healthier, cleaner, and safer place.

But order fulfillment hasn't always been a quick and easy process at the company's Maryland plant and DC. Nor was it particularly comfortable for workers. At the site, workers fulfill customers' orders by picking from thousands of unique SKUs (stock-keeping units), including many that must be stored under temperature-controlled conditions. In the past, that meant much of the order fulfillment activity had to be carried out in either a 13,000-square-foot refrigerated "cold box" area or a 9,000-square-foot freezer.

The 35 pickers working in these cold box and freezer areas had to wear cold suits while they selected products from pallets containing anywhere from three to 10 boxes, each with different SKUs. "Pickers had to go through all of the boxes on a pallet to find the right SKU, which was very time-consuming," said Thomas Brown, systems engineer at Thermo Fisher, in prepared remarks. "We needed a ... way to pick more efficiently and accurately, and get products out the door faster."

In a bid to boost productivity and provide a more comfortable working environment, Thermo Fisher began work to redesign the cooler and freezer picking areas in 2012. To move as much of the picking activity as possible out of the cold box and freezer environment, it installed 94 deli doors, similar to the doors used in grocery stores to house refrigerated or frozen items. Behind the deli doors, the company installed 1,600 linear feet of Unex's Span-Track carton flow rack bed to house the 2,000 fastest-moving temperature-sensitive SKUs, which account for about 70 percent of the daily picks in the cool zones.

The Span-Track bed features tightly packed rollers that evenly distribute the weight of the product, which both improves flow and minimizes the chance of cartons hanging up. It also offers the flexibility to handle products in a wide range of sizes, from vials that may be only one inch high to 10 milliliter-sized bottles. Brown says he can now get 20 to 30 bins of SKUs inside each deli door on four to five levels of flow rack beds.

The move to flow racks has improved product organization, reduced travel, and made it easier to replenish SKUs. The new system has also reduced reaching, as the gravity rollers continuously feed products to the front of the racks for selection. As a result, picking efficiency has improved in the cold areas by more than 45 percent.

Order accuracy is up as well. Brown reports that workers can more easily see the SKUs they need to pick, which reduces selection errors. Products are also moving through the area faster to get to customers sooner. And because the products are stored behind the deli doors, workers no longer have to wear the cold suits to fill orders.

About the Author

David Maloney
Chief Editor
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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