Handling cases of beverages is never easy. That's because liquid-filled cases are heavy to lug around and if dropped, can quickly create a sticky mess. In addition to being hard on the back, manual processing and sorting often result in less-than-stellar order accuracy rates, especially for operations that ship multiple cases to a variety of customers.
That's why Horizon Beverage of Norton, Mass., was determined to make some operational changes when it recently moved to a new distribution center. "We had capacity issues in the old building, and our error rates were high," says Michael Epstein, the company's executive vice president and chief operating officer.
After mulling its options, the company decided on a solution that would address all of its pain points: accuracy, product damage, and ergonomic woes. It would partially automate its operations.
REAPING THE BENEFITS OF REPEAL
Horizon began its business life as Brockton Wholesale Beverage at an auspicious time—the day after prohibition ended in 1933. The company has grown steadily ever since, acquiring its current name, Horizon Beverage, in 1998. Fourth-generation descendants of the founder now run the company.
Today's Horizon Beverage is a wholesaler of beer, wine, and spirits throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island. It also runs a brokerage operation in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, which are all "control states" that regulate alcohol wholesaling.
Wholesale distribution for the company covers a wide range of customers throughout the Bay and Ocean states. "We ship to the smallest VFW, the largest nightclubs, stores, restaurants, and even Fenway Park. If you have a liquor license, we can deliver products to you," says Epstein.
Horizon Beverage moved to its new 600,000-square-foot temperature-controlled facility in Norton, which is 35 miles south of Boston, last year. (The company also has a 100,000-square-foot facility in western Massachusetts.) The new site, from which Horizon ships full pallets, full cases, and mixed cases of beverages, is a far cry from its predecessor. For example, the new building features roller conveyors and a sliding shoe sorter (both from Intelligrated) that now do most of the heavy lifting. Labels and voice picking technology also help boost accuracy.
To design the material handling systems for the new facility, Horizon Beverage turned to Carlstadt, N.J. -based integration firm W&H Systems. "W&H has experience in the wine and spirits [trade], and that is why we chose them," says Epstein.
Epstein praises W&H for its willingness to work with Horizon to smooth out rough spots in the flow, such as tweaking conveyor inclines and turns to assure gentle transport and minimize the potential for bottle breakage. The integrator also arranged to have the conveyors' rollers positioned closer together to reduce vibration and jarring, he says.
LIFTING THEIR SPIRITS
Today, distribution is a smooth-running operation at the Norton site. Forklifts whisk full-pallet orders and keg products to the shipping docks, while the remaining items are gathered from seven pick areas. (About 80 percent of the products shipped daily from the DC are selected in case- or less-than-case quantities.)
Six of the selection areas are located in three, two-level pick modules. Here, full cases are selected using printed shipping labels. Each label lists the location where a case is stored within the pick module. The worker assigned to the module pulls a case from that storage slot and manually affixes the shipping label to the carton. He then lifts the case onto a takeaway conveyor that runs through each level of the module.
The seventh pick area, known as "bottle pick," is designed for assembling mixed cases of products for customers who want less-than-full-case quantities of particular stock-keeping units (SKUs). The majority of these items are liquors and spirits, though a small percentage of wines are also selected within the bottle pick area. Voice technology from Lucas Systems directs picking. Workers receive computer-generated instructions over their headsets, then place the bottles into mixed-SKU cartons.
Epstein jokes that this is actually the second "pick-by-voice" system his company has used. In the old facility, a supervisor would stand at the end of the aisle with a written manifest in his hand. He would speak over a hand radio to workers in the aisles, who would select needed items as he read them off. "It was like using horses instead of cars," Epstein quips in comparing the two "technologies."
The full cases selected in the six modules combine with cases coming from the bottle pick area in a seven-to-one merge. They then enter the sliding shoe sorter. The sorter has small blocks, known as shoes, which can move across the conveying surface. When a carton reaches its divert destination, the software directs the shoes to slide, gently redirecting the case down a divert lane. The sorter at Horizon has nine divert lanes. Eight of these feed down to outbound shipping doors.
The ninth sorter divert sends cases through a pop-up sorter to a palletizing area. Once cases go through the initial sorting, wheels in the conveyor surface rise up to direct them to one of four palletizing stations. When a case reaches the assigned station, a computer relays instructions to workers regarding where to place it on a waiting pallet.
The cartons that divert from the sliding shoe sorter to the eight outbound docks are floor loaded onto the company's fleet of 50 beverage delivery trucks, where they join full pallets brought directly from the storage areas. Horizon also has three tractor-trailer trucks that it uses for longer hauls, some transfers to its western Massachusetts facility, and occasional inbound freight.
All together, the facility ships about 30,000 cases of beverages a day, with 25,000 of them passing through the sorter. The automation has led to higher throughput in the new building compared with Horizon's previous DC. The gentle handling has also reduced breakage levels. Epstein says that work is now performed at a controlled, steady pace compared to the often-hectic environment in the old building.
"It's a much more pleasant work environment now, and we can do more in less time," says Epstein. "We had problems with a lot of errors when we did manual sorting, but the automated sorting takes that away."