For Han Solo of "Star Wars" fame, making the fabled jump to light-speed took less than a second. The instant he pulled the lever, the galaxy brightened, the stars blurred into a halo of streaks, and the Millennium Falcon zoomed into hyperspace, leaving the Imperial Star Destroyers choking in its (star)dust.
For retailer Too Inc., the jump to lightspeed took a little longer. In fact, its jump—the result of the installation of a blazing fast put-to-light fulfillment system—was several years in the making. But the results were worth waiting for. The new equipment and processes have boosted order picking productivity by a full 25 percent.
Spun off from The Limited in 1999, Too Inc. sells apparel and accessories for girls aged 7 to 14 through its retail brands, Limited Too and Justice. Up until five years ago, Too filled orders out of one of The Limited's DCs in Columbus, Ohio, a holdover from the company's days as part of The Limited Co. (parent of The Limited, Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works and White Barn Candle stores). But in 2001, it began construction on a distribution center of its own in nearby Etna, Ohio. That new facility, designed by Sedlak & Associates, now supports 574 Limited Too stores and 92 Justice stores and is designed to handle more as the retail chain grows.
When it built the new DC, Too envisioned something very different from the distribution setup in the former Limited facility. For starters, it wanted something much more automated. "The old facility at Limited was very manual with very little conveyor. It was mostly pallet movements," explains Matt Dippold, manager of DC technical services. "In this new building, we wanted to let the conveyors do the work. Our goals were to have faster movement and fewer people involved."
In the end, Dippold got the conveyors he wanted, which today whisk cartons through the DC with the assistance of two new sliding shoe sorters. But the big gains in productivity have come not so much from the conveyors but from process changes and a new put-to-light fulfillment system installed last May. That new system—supplied by Dematic (formerly Siemens Logistics and Assembly Systems), which also provided the facility's conveyors and sorters—has boosted both speed and productivity.
Seeing the light
Introduced in the late '90s, put-to-light systems work in much the same way as the more familiar pick-to-light systems, but in reverse. Rather than sending pickers with order totes out to retrieve items from lighted storage locations, put-to-light systems are set up so that batched items are instead brought to stationary totes that collect items for an individual order. The light displays are located not at the SKUs' storage locations but at each order tote or carton, telling the picker that this container needs, say, two pairs of daisy yoga pants and that one needs six sequined camisoles. Users typically see a huge jump in productivity because workers no longer have to stop to consult pick tickets or scanner displays for directions.
Why didn't the company install the technology from the start? The delay was largely due to management's reluctance to do anything that might jeopardize productivity during the changeover. "We ... did not want to add major process changes during our transition to the Etna facility," recalls Steve Daley, director of distribution center operations.
As an interim step, Too invested in radio frequency (RF) technology at Etna for relaying picking assignments to workers via handheld scanner displays. Many of the employees who opened the Etna facility had come over from The Limited's DC and were accustomed to working with RF scanners (along with pick tickets and a warehouse management system). "We knew our people could transition easily to the RF-directed system. It was less risk," says Daley. "In addition, we knew right away we could make significant process improvements over the original store put design without any capital investment. It really made more sense to get the building up and running first, then refine the layout and flow of goods through our put process before we introduced different technology."
When the DC first opened, picking took place in both pick towers and in what was then an RF-directed put area. But once it saw how well the put system worked, the company soon became dissatisfied with direct picking in the towers. Not only did it take time for workers to walk from location to location, but the company also found itself constantly reslotting the pick faces to reflect its ever-changing mix of SKUs. Plus the cost per unit to process orders through the towers was nearly twice the cost of processing via the store put system. So last May, the pick towers were abandoned (one is now used for the collection of returns) and the put system was converted from RF to put-to-light.
Though the new equipment has been in place for less than nine months, it's already been fully integrated into the DC's operations. Today, as goods arrive, workers first apply labels to the cartons. About 5 percent of incoming goods are then sent to special stations for ticketing, re-ticketing or inspection before being processed elsewhere. Once they leave those stations, they join the other incoming cartons destined for storage, cross docking or induction into the put-to-light system.
Items entering the Etna facility rarely stay long. About 60 percent of incoming goods are readied for shipping within 24 hours of their arrival. The other 40 percent go to reserve storage, but they rarely remain there beyond six or eight weeks.
Cartons heading to storage are manually stacked onto pallets upon arrival and taken to reserve racking. The remaining cartons—items that will either be cross-docked or deposited into the put-to-light system—are placed onto a conveyor that feeds an inbound sliding shoe sorter. This sorter consists of 15 diverts, one of which feeds a conveyor that provides transport for the cross-docked items. This conveyor line first delivers cartons to a processing station, where print-and-apply automated equipment tapes, weighs and labels them. Cartons then head to the facility's second sliding shoe sorter, which feeds shipping.
Items destined for the put-to-light system, known at Too as "put-to-store," are diverted from the receiving sorter to 12 put-to-light lanes, or bays, as assigned by the warehouse management system. At the same time, cases in reserve storage that contain items needed to fill orders are taken to an induction station at the receiving sorter and are then diverted along with the inbound receipts to the put-to-light lanes.
On the way out
The put-to-store area is set up so that racks are divided into put slots, with shipping cartons placed into the slots to represent stores. Apparel slots are normally kept separate from those used for accessories like jewelry, purses, makeup kits and belts, which makes putaway easier once the merchandise reaches the stores.
As a case arrives at a bay within the put-to-store area, a worker using a wrist scanner scans the case's bar code. The warehouse management system (supplied by Manhattan Associates) takes that information and, in conjunction with Dematic's PickDirector software, assigns products from the case to specific stores.
The system then directs workers to the proper assignments by illuminating light beacons and quantity indicators at the slots assigned to the various stores. The worker simply pulls the items from the case and places them into each store's carton, then hits a button next to the light to confirm the action. Any cases still containing leftover products after picking has been completed in a particular bay are pushed onto a conveyor, which recirculates the case back through the receiving sorter, where it is sorted to another bay or sent to reserve storage.
Once a carton is full, it's pushed off onto a takeaway conveyor. The worker then grabs an empty carton and scans its label as well as the bar code attached to the slot where it will go, so that the put-to-light system knows which store it will represent.
Conveyors whisk the filled cartons from the put-to-light area through a merge that feeds the same sealing, weighing, and print-and-apply area that serves cross-docked items. These cartons then join the flow of cross-docked products entering the sliding shoe shipping sorter. This sorter diverts to 11 docks, including six that have extendable conveyors for fluid truck loading. Too Inc. intends to add extendable conveyors to the remaining five docks later this year.
Most products are shipped out via FedEx Ground service. The majority of cartons are line-hauled to FedEx's regional hubs, where the loads are broken down for final delivery. During busy periods, those weekly outgoing shipments number in the thousands, with each of the nearly 675 stores receiving a shipment almost daily. Even at off-peak times, those stores still receive deliveries two or three times a week.
A section of the shipping dock is reserved for the collection of products destined for new stores. This pack-andhold area accumulates pallet loads of products until they are ready to ship by line-haul carrier. The company, which expects most of its future growth to come from Justice stores, adds about 75 new stores each year.
Too good to be true?
If Too Inc.'s management had any lingering concerns about the transition to the put-to-light system, those fears have certainly been allayed by now. During the recent holiday season, 1.8 million units shipped per week, 70 percent of them passing through the put-to-light system. "I think it is amazing how much we can pump through this building," says Dippold. "We are only 470,000 square feet but have the ability to service 1,100 stores."
In fact, the company's original plans had called for expansion this year. "We were supposed to be blowing out a wall to expand the facility," Dippold reports. "Instead, we did some creative things over the past couple of years to better utilize the space we have."
One of those creative things was the purchase of a carton erector that keeps the boxes' flaps up when they're inserted into the put area. That move alone reduced the amount of space needed between cartons from the 16 inches required when their flaps were down to just four or five inches. The space saved allowed the company to add more slotted positions, bringing the total to 2,552. That, along with continuous tweaking of store slotting based on volumes, has increased productivity by 42 percent in the put area over levels recorded when the center opened. As a result, says Dippold, Too Inc. won't have to expand for at least another two years.
The company has seen plenty of other benefits as well. Productivity is more than double the levels reached in the old Limited building. Since seeing the lights, Too Inc. now achieves a staggering 700 unit picks per man hour on average. "The light system has met our expectations and we are 25 percent more productive in the store put area since transitioning from RF," notes Dippold.
The new processes and productivity improvements have translated into cost savings as well. Adding the lights and simplifying the process has lowered overall labor requirements and reduced the time needed to train new workers, according to Daley. "We are certainly hiring fewer seasonal associates now because of the productivity gains. We can also get the new hires up to speed in about half the time it took us with the old RF process. That translates into significant dollar savings."
As for the orders themselves, fulfillment today is near perfect. The DC reports an accuracy rate of better than 99.9 percent. Clearly, that precision has not come at the expense of speed; turnaround times are shorter than they were in the past. It used to take a week for stores to receive items once they had been allocated. The goods now reach them in just a couple of days.
Taken together, these improvements have brought about a quick payback for Too Inc. The new put-to-light system, for example, is expected to meet or even surpass its projected return on investment. Sounds like the Force was with them.