A few years back, cookware distributor Meyer Corp. found itself facing the classic growth challenge—at least where its distribution operations were concerned. Although it has only been doing business in the United States since the early '80s, the company, a subsidiary of global cookware giant Meyer Manufacturing, has enjoyed tremendous success in that time. Today, it has grown into one of the largest cookware distributors in the country, marketing such well-known brands as Circulon, Anolon, Farberware, KitchenAid, SilverStone, Rachael Ray, and Paula Deen.
That kind of 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 Fairfield, Calif., that was feeling the strain. Growing volume had created serious capacity problems at the 365,000-square-foot facility, forcing the supplier to store product in five nearby off-site facilities. That stopgap measure was creating as many problems as it solved, such as the need for double handling and inventory-tracking complications.
Moving was not an option. The company wanted to remain in its current building, which is located on its main distribution campus in Fairfield. Problem was, there was little room to expand its footprint. Then the company hit upon a solution: If it couldn't expand outward, it would expand upward.
The distributor's solution was to build a high-bay addition that houses a new, high-capacity automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS). The 12-aisle high-bay system, which was designed and built by Daifuku, now stores approximately 66,000 pallets of cookware in a footprint of only 165,000 square feet.
"The advantage for us of using a high-bay AS/RS is that it would require 750,000 square feet of traditional space to house what we can put into that 165,000 square feet," says Mark Warcholski, the company's director of warehouse operations.
The AS/RS was built as a rack-supported addition, meaning the roof actually rests on the top of the racking and the shell of the building was erected around the rack structure. The system, which Daifuku customized for its client, features 11 stories of racking reaching a total height of 100 feet. The aisles within the system vary in length, with the longest aisle running 675 feet and the shortest 570 feet. Because the addition had to be constructed to fit the available land, the system's configuration was largely dictated by those space constraints.
Not only is the new addition space efficient, it's also a showpiece of eco-friendly construction. The racking was fabricated from 82 percent recycled steel. Solar panels will soon be mounted on the roof; recycled well water is being used for irrigation around the building; and the parking lot incorporates recycled concrete from a nearby freeway project. Since no humans need to enter the AS/RS area, it can operate with the lights out, which yields substantial savings on energy.
In August, Meyer was able to consolidate the inventory from the five satellite facilities into the AS/RS, and there's still plenty of room to spare. Right now, the company is using only about 55 percent of the system's storage capacity. It hopes to use some of its excess capacity to provide third-party logistics services for other companies.
Picks and pans
Now that the AS/RS is in operation, the receiving, putaway, and retrieval processes unfold in a tightly choreographed sequence. As container-loads of merchandise arrive from overseas, the products are unloaded, labeled, palletized onto plastic pallets, and shrink wrapped for optimal handling by the automated systems. Lift trucks then gather the pallets and take them to drop-off stations in the high-bay area. (Meyer's plans call for replacing the lift trucks with automatic guided vehicles by the middle of next year.)
Before entering the AS/RS, the pallets first go through a load sizing and identification area to ensure they will fit in the racks and are configured properly to avoid jamming the system. Pallets that fail to meet the specifications for size, weight, and so forth are rejected to two work stations or a "jackpot" lane, where workers make needed adjustments.
Once a load passes the sizing area, it moves on to a pickup station, where one of four Sorting Transfer Vehicles (STVs), also supplied by Daifuku, collects the pallet. The STVs, which run on a 500-foot looped rail that passes in front of each of the system's 12 aisles, move the loads to the ends of their assigned aisles. Storage assignments are made by Daifuku's WarehouseRx warehouse control system (WCS). Typically, the system uses a round-robin approach to assigning storage locations, so that product is spread evenly across the aisles.
Twelve storage/retrieval cranes operate within the system, one in each aisle. As the STVs discharge their loads, the cranes gather them up and deposit them in the predetermined locations. Collectively, the cranes, which can move loads of up to 1,200 pounds, handle 60 to 70 pallet loads an hour.
Since the system uses randomly assigned double-deep storage, one SKU may be placed in front of another (the cranes have the capability to shuffle pallets around to gain access to the right pallet). The WCS will also attempt to assign faster-moving SKUs closer to the aisle's input/output station to save time during putaway and retrieval.
When pallets are needed to fill orders or replenish the facility's pick modules, the WCS dispatches several cranes simultaneously to gather pallets from multiple aisles. The cranes deposit the loads at drop-off stations, where the STVs gather them up and ferry them to one of two conveyor outputs. Lift trucks then collect the pallets for transport. Pallets that will ship to customers as full loads are taken directly to the outbound shipping docks, while other loads are taken to the pick modules to be used for replenishment purposes.
Orders for wholesale and retail customers and for consumers who place orders via the company's website, potsandpans.com, are filled in the pick modules, which are set up to support both full-case and split-case picking. The items selected are conveyed to one of two shipping sorters, depending on where in the modules the picks were made. One is a pop-up sorter supplied by Hytrol, while the other is a sliding shoe sorter provided by Automotion. From there, the cartons are sorted to outbound docks.
Putting a lid on it
As for how it's all working out, Warcholski says the Fairfield facility has realized a number of benefits from the AS/RS. For one thing, the new setup has allowed the company to bring everything under one roof, which has greatly simplified the distribution process.
"When you manage multiple facilities, there is a lot of jumping through hoops as you have multiple inventories to manage," says Warcholski. "It is much easier now to manage the flow and our processes."
For another, the new setup has cut down on handling. Because double handling is no longer required, Meyer can get its products to market faster. On top of that, reduced handling has led to a decrease in product damage.
"It's almost a slam dunk," Warcholski says of the project overall. "As a company, we want to be on the cutting edge. This has allowed us to maximize our storage density and has shortened the window of time it takes to execute our orders."