When consumer products giant Amway decided to move its Midwest fulfillment operations to a building on its main campus in Ada, Mich., managers saw their chance for a clean sweep. From the outset, they rejected the idea of replicating the setup of the retailer's former regional facility, located just a few miles away. Instead, they would use the opportunity to redesign the fulfillment process and introduce more automation.
What prompted the move was a change in the retailer's operations. The old building had been a dual-purpose facility, used for shipping both catalog orders and orders from Amway's "Independent Business Owners," or IBOs—the local folks nationwide who market Amway products to their friends and neighbors. But the retailer had recently shut down the catalog business, making the old process obsolete. At that point, the company decided it would be better served by shifting fulfillment to a 600,000-square-foot facility that had formerly supported manufacturing.
Although the move offered an opportunity to start with a clean slate, the design team also faced some challenges. One of the big questions involved the conveyors that would be used to whisk items through the facility (95 percent of Amway's products are conveyable). The company was hoping to improve on the system at the old facility, which had featured eight miles of conveyor belt. In particular, it was looking for units that would be quieter and more energy-efficient than their predecessors. It also wanted models that would provide better accumulation and gapping.
There were other requirements as well. The system would have to be capable of accommodating wide fluctuations in volume. Amway's orders rise sharply during the last week of each month, as its IBOs push to meet their goals. During peak periods, as many as 24,000 cartons move through the facility each day. That number is expected to jump to well over 30,000 when the full ramp-up is completed.
Then there was the matter of wide variations in product weights and sizes. Since its founding in 1959 as a seller of household cleaners, Amway has expanded and diversified into such product lines as nutritional supplements, jewelry and accessories, and health and beauty aids. That meant the conveyors selected would have to be capable of transporting anything from an empty carton weighing a few ounces up to an order weighing 50 pounds.
ON A ROLL
With the help of Bastian Solutions, a systems design and integration firm that also acts as a distributor for Hytrol Conveyor Co., Amway found the solution it was seeking. The system the two partners came up with features not just one type of conveyor, but a combination of roller, belt, spiral, curved, incline, gravity, accumulating, and trash conveyors that serve just about every area of the DC. The conveyors in the new system, most of which were supplied by Hytrol, are equally capable of gently handling a big box of dog food as a carton containing a single tube of lipstick.
"We have a wide range of conveyors. There is a purpose behind every type," explains Paul Slack, senior engineer. "Within a line, we go smoothly from one type to another—whatever is best to do the job."
Rollers are employed for basic transport in this extensive network (there are over 400,000 total rollers found within the system's conveyors). Belt conveyors are used in areas for accumulating, weighing, and scanning, among others. The system has 36 scanners arrayed along its various paths.
Among the workhorses of the system are Hytrol's E24 modular conveyors, which provide zero pressure accumulation and gapping with the added benefit of plug-and-play connectivity. That makes them easy to install and later reconfigure. Their 24-volt design also provides efficient, quiet operation. Rollers shut down when there is no product present to convey.
JUST SKIP IT
Another benefit of Amway's new conveyor design is that it can accommodate zone skipping. In the old building, orders had to pass through all pick zones whether the zones contained items needed for the order or not. In the new facility, that's no longer necessary. Under the current setup, the facility's RedPrairie warehouse management system is able to route cartons so they bypass zones that do not contain any picks.
"The conveyors now give us some routing options, and we have the flexibility to direct cartons where they need to go," says Deb ParmÃ©, Amway's director of North American logistics. "Not everyone is touching every box now, which reduces labor."
The conveyors serve a pick-to-belt area, where full cases are selected; a split case area; and a pick-to-combine area, where small-carton items and split-case items are consolidated into a single outbound carton to save on shipping. Picking in these areas is directed by a combination of pick-to-light and pick-by-voice technologies, with both systems supplied by Bastian.
Bastian also provided several ZIPline zero pressure accumulation conveyors that feature a "tacky," or rough-surfaced, belt that allows for quick acceleration and deceleration without product slippage. These are deployed in areas where product is to be inserted or diverted. In all, the system at Amway features 51 total conveyor diverts.
Among those diverts is a section that feeds three French-made packaging systems from B+ Equipment and its American partner, Sealed Air Corp. These machines "right size" cartons by folding down the top edges to meet the height of the tallest item in the carton. The system then glues a lid onto the box.
In addition to routing items to the various picking areas, the conveyors also serve document insertion areas, the print-and-apply applicators, and the packaging area. In-line scales built into the conveyors also perform weight verification at several stages along the conveyor journey to assure that true weight matches expected weight.
Once all products have been packaged, the cartons enter a 4-to-1 sawtooth merge that lines them up for sorting via a narrow-belt sorter. Wheels at the 16 diverts pop up at a 30-degree angle between the conveying bands of the sorter to nudge products down spurs to awaiting docks. This unit is able to sort 90 cartons a minute, serving four pallet build areas and 12 shipping lanes. Cartons are floor loaded onto trailers aided by a telescoping extendible conveyor supplied by Adjustoveyor.
By all accounts, everybody involved in the project is happy with both the design process and the results. "We had a good idea of what we wanted to do, and everyone was engaged in it," notes ParmÃ©. "With the help of everyone, we were able to take our ideas and apply them to this new facility."
Editor's note: The facility described in this story is featured in "Move it!," a new Web-based TV series that takes viewers inside the operations of leading companies and introduces them to the people, cutting-edge technologies, and strategies that make it all work. To view the episode and see Amway's conveyors in action, visit www.moveitshow.com.