There's no way around it. Moving a big couch or dining room table or armoire into, through, and out of a distribution center is necessarily a cumbersome process.
And when you multiply that task by, say, a million items per month, it starts to sound like a monumental material handling challenge. But for retailer American Signature Inc., moving all that furniture is no problem. In fact, it's all part of the daily routine.
It hasn't always been that way. A few years back, the company was struggling to find a way to move large furniture items that wasn't awkward, slow, unsafe, or damage prone. In 2008, it finally hit upon a solution. Today, the retailer is able to whisk even the biggest and bulkiest items through its Ohio and Pennsylvania facilities at double the rates it achieved in the past.
What started the company down this road was growth. Since its founding in 2002, the Columbus, Ohio-based company, which operates both the American Signature Furniture and Value City Furniture chains, has undergone rapid expansion. Today, it has some 125 stores in 19 states.
To serve these stores, the company operates five distribution centers—located in Ohio, Virginia, Georgia, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. The DCs, which range in size from 300,000 to 600,000 square feet, only stock about 4,000 to 5,000 SKUs apiece, but they carry vast inventories in order to fill store orders rapidly.
The DCs are high-volume operations—collectively they handled about a million pieces of furniture and other goods in December, which is just a bit above normal, according to Todd Deutsch, the company's director of DC inventory systems and continuous improvement. And because every piece is handled by a person, order fulfillment at these sites is a labor-intensive process, he adds.
So when American Signature began preparations for a center it planned to open in York, Pa., in 2008, it made material handling efficiency a priority.
The company quickly homed in on the equipment used to move furniture around the facility. American Signature had tried various approaches in the past, including carts the company built in house at its Indiana DC. But none of these devices proved satisfactory, Deutsch says. "The carts were either not well built, or they were too good—too heavy and too bulky and hard to move around. We found ourselves struggling."
Call in the engineers
To find a better solution, the company turned to a specialist in engineered material handling carts, Cleveland-based K-Tec Inc. Working in conjunction with American Signature, K-Tec's engineers developed special carts to meet the furniture company's requirements. Among other attributes, the decks feature rolled panel construction to maintain rigidity under full loads (typically 1,200 to 1,500 pounds) while keeping tare (unloaded) weight to a minimum. (Lighter tare weights help reduce the push force required to manually move loads safely within an accepted ergonomic range.) The carts, which also feature specially mounted caster rigs and a high-strength coupling system, are engineered to slide onto the forks of the person-up order pickers used in the DCs, easing putaway or loading for the workers operating those vehicles.
Their use is fairly straightforward. When a truckload of incoming merchandise is due to arrive, drivers on tuggers stage the carts at the receiving docks according to directions from American Signature's homegrown warehouse management system (WMS). Once the truck arrives, warehouse associates manually load goods from the trailers onto the carts for putaway. As part of the process, they attach inventory labels and scan the labels' bar codes.
A driver on a tugger then moves the carts in trains to the locations designated by the WMS. There, workers on order pickers take over, moving the carts to the putaway location and placing the furniture on cantilevered racks designed for the purpose. (Case goods are stored on standard racks.) At the rack location, the worker scans the goods a second time. "That lets the WMS know exactly where it is," Deutsch says.
The order fulfillment process works much the same way, only in reverse. When orders come in from the stores, the WMS automatically builds a trailer for each store. (Most stores receive a full trailer load each day—a few receive two.) At the same time, the system issues picking instructions. Following those directions, workers on order pickers load the furniture onto the carts, which are then moved to shipping by tuggers. It takes 30 to 40 cart-loads to complete a trailer, Deutsch says.
At the dock, workers floor load the outbound trailers for the stores. The trucks are all hand loaded, but the company has come up with several strategies for making loading easier, Deutsch says. "For example, we try to pick upholstery first to help build a tighter load, keeping big cube items together in the nose. Then we fill in case goods. There's an art to loading furniture."
A cut above
American Signature is currently using the original K-Tec carts in its York DC and a newer, lighter version at its Columbus, Ohio, facility. Both models represent a vast improvement over the old system, company officials say.
"The difference is night and day compared to what we did ourselves," Deutsch reports. "The carts are much better balanced, and they're lighter than the carts we [designed]." He adds that the K-Tec units are quieter too.
The carts offer operational advantages as well. Their low deck makes loading and unloading easier for workers and has cut down on damage to furniture. And because the carts are detachable, drivers can drop them where needed rather than waiting for them to be loaded or unloaded.
Taken together, those advantages have added up to significant productivity gains, says Larry Tyler, K-Tec's vice president of sales and marketing. He reports that the DCs using the carts were able to double output without doubling staffing.
But perhaps the best endorsement of all is American Signature's future plans for the carts. The company says it expects to expand their use beyond just the York and Columbus sites to all of its DCs.