For third-party logistics service providers (3PLs) that specialize in order fulfillment, life is never dull—unpredictable, perhaps; but never dull. Unlike their counterparts at, say, an engine manufacturer or a textile mill, the third party's staffers might find themselves picking lipstick one day, electric guitars the next.
A prime example of a 3PL company that has to be ready for whatever its clients might throw at it next is New Jersey-based Capacity. This five-year-old company, which runs two distribution facilities in North Brunswick, N.J., serves more than 60 different clients. Half of Capacity's distribution business is for cosmetics companies, like Bliss and Tarte, so it has to be ready to deal with small products. But the facilities also must be prepared to handle music CDs and larger items, like textiles, garments and electronics. "We actually handle everything from K-Mart uniforms to yoga mats to electric guitars," says Thom Campbell, chief strategic officer and a founding partner of Capacity.
To give it the flexibility it needs to process both pallet loads and single-item orders, Capacity actually uses two warehouses. The smaller 60,000-square-foot facility processes mostly full case orders, while its 130,000-square-foot building handles pick-and-pack needs. Of course, managing two different systems in two separate facilities poses challenges for the software that automates the whole process. For Capacity, the answer was a warehouse management system (WMS) customized by Foxfire Technologies to accommodate Capacity's multi-facility, multi-product design. The WMS controls all picking and packing processes, including paper picking and radio frequency (RF)-directed picking from pallet racks, flow racks and shelving. In addition to order fulfillment, RF is used to direct receiving and shipping functions. The WMS also allows clients to view their inventories in real time.
Take your pick
Most picking tasks take place in the larger pick-and-pack building. In that facility, the majority of products are placed into reserve pallet racks upon receipt, where they remain until needed. Some full pallets and full cases, like cosmetics that ship directly to stores, may be picked from the pallet racks, but most of the items pulled from there are destined to replenish Capacity's pick modules.
"Our picking strategy really depends on the client," reports Campbell. "We currently process everything from a single Internet order with one piece to a full trailer of products."
The facility's pick modules consist of case flow racks and shelving. Takeaway conveyors run through these areas to facilitate efficient picking of orders. The flow racks hold fast-movers, while the shelving contains slower-moving products and irregularly shaped items not suited to the flow racks. Most products for a particular client are grouped together to speed up selection, as processing is typically waved a client at a time.
Items are picked by order into totes or cartons according to the client's specifications. The fast-movers are selected from their flow racks using either pick tickets or RF-directed assignments (Capacity is currently in the process of migrating more of its clients to the RF processes). Items are also gathered from the nearby shelving and placed into the cartons or containers before they're pushed off onto the takeaway conveyors. Since picking is performed by discrete order, some cartons or totes are filled to the brim with products, while others, such as those for Internet orders, may contain only one item.
Slower-moving items, odd-shaped products (such as the electric guitars) and select merchandise for less-active customers are located in shelving away from the conveyors. These items are picked to wheeled carts.
Once all selections have been made, the items are either conveyed or carted to 16 pack stations. Typically, 10 to 15 of these stations are active at any given time, depending on the volume being processed that day. Workers remove the items from their totes and cartons, conduct quality checks to verify proper order selection and then repack the items into shipping cartons.
"Different clients have different pack regimens," says Campbell. Some use custom boxes with identifying markings. Some require value-added services, such as gift wrapping. Dunnage, the protective material placed around the product in the shipping carton, is added according to the clients' preferences. Some prefer air bubble wrap, while others use kraft paper to protect their products. Cartons are also weighed and packing lists are created, again based on customer preferences. Once all items have been repacked, the cartons are sealed and then sent to a staging area to await shipment.
The facility processes 2,000 to 3,000 orders a day, consisting of about 10,000 packed items. And in case you were wondering, Capacity has not yet reached its name.