One of the world's best-known beauty and cosmetics brands recently upgraded its main European fulfillment center in Belgium to keep up with the fast-changing retail times. As is common among distributors, the U.S.-based company (which requested that its name not be used) has seen an increase in orders of smaller quantities that are shipped more often. This means less of the traditional case or pallet picking and more piece picking.
To address this shift, the company last year outfitted the Belgian distribution center, which handles the full portfolio of the company's brands, with a new goods-to-person shuttle and picking system, engineered and integrated by Inther Logistics Automation.
The new shuttle system complements the pick-to-light operation still being used for piece picking within the facility, which is located adjacent to one of the company's manufacturing plants. In addition to installing the new technology, the DC also upgraded its warehouse management system (supplied by Manhattan Associates) to a version that accommodates the batch processing of orders.INTERNAL MAKE-UP
While the adjacent factory has been producing creams and lipsticks for 50 years, the Belgian distribution center dates back only to 2005. The DC was originally built to serve France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Within a few years, however, it was expanded to allow the company to consolidate several other European distribution operations at the site. Today, the facility serves as a manufacturing distribution hub, with factories elsewhere in Europe and in Asia shipping their products there for distribution to 42 other logistics centers worldwide.
In addition to gathering goods from other European and Asian factories, the Belgian facility also consolidates products made in North America and elsewhere for transfer to six major distribution facilities located in Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Greece, and Israel. In addition, the facility ships products directly to some 20,000 customer addresses in 36 different countries.
To manage such a variety of tasks, the company separated the facility into two operations that are connected by a common wall. In one section of the building, a third-party logistics service provider (3PL) performs pallet and case fulfillment. In the other section, direct employees of the cosmetic company handle the piece-picking end of the operation.
The facility manger explains that it is one building with two functions, but they run as an integrated process. He says another third-party provider had previously performed the pallet and case picking at an off-site location, but the results were disappointing. Since the facility already had the piece-picking operation in place, the company decided to move the pallet and case picking there as well. A separate building was erected for this purpose and was eventually expanded to eliminate the gap between the buildings.
In a typical day, the facility processes 120,000 line items and about 30,000 cartons. Overall, it ships about half a million units per year.SPLIT DECISIONS
On the 3PL side of the building, workers equipped with radio-frequency (RF) terminals pick cases and pallets. Many of these are consolidated from the factories for delivery to the other European DCs. Workers also select cases from reserve storage to replenish the piece-picking operation on the other side of the building.
Pick-to-light remains the primary order fulfillment technology on the piece-picking side of the house. It is used for fast-moving (higher-demand) products and some medium-demand items. The functions are performed via a pick-and-pass method, with order containers passing from one light-directed zone to another. There are 7,000 pick-to-light locations within 45 zones. The use of different colored lights allows two or three people to work in each zone during busy periods. Management says the pick-to-light system was chosen for its guidance, speed, and accuracy.
The warehouse management system (WMS) creates picking waves based on when orders need to be consolidated for shipping. The wave data are then transferred to the Inther warehouse control system (WCS) to carry out the pick processes. The WCS determines the carton size needed for an order and where in the picking loop selection should begin. The cartons pass through the pick zones, with workers adding items to them as directed by the lights.
Up until last year, picking carts were also deployed to gather slow-moving items. The new automated shuttles and goods-to-person systems have since replaced the carts. There were several reasons for this upgrade. First was the amount of time it took for workers to travel to pick locations using the carts. Switching to the new shuttles and goods-to-person systems virtually eliminated the need for travel, reducing both the time and the labor required. It also reduced reliance on temporary labor, which was difficult to find within the area.
Another draw for the cosmetics company was the system's exceptional accuracy. Because it delivers only the product needed for an order to a workstation, there is little chance for error. On top of that, the system is both productive and efficient. Workers at the four goods-to-person stations can each pick up to 250 order lines per hour compared with only 75 lines an hour per person with the pick carts. It also allowed the company to expand its stock-keeping unit (SKU) count to about 18,000. Eventually, the system should enable workers to pick an impressive 300 order lines per man-hour.
Inther engineered and designed the new system using shuttle technology from Knapp AG. The system consists of a large automated storage system and the four goods-to-person picking stations. Due to space limitations, the automated storage is actually located on the 3PL side of the building. Conveyors pass through the wall to link the storage to the goods-to-person picking stations on the other side of the house.SOPHISTICATED STYLING
The two-aisle automated tote storage and retrieval system contains 26 levels of racking (supplied by Nedcon). There are 52 Knapp shuttles in the system, one per level in each aisle, which move the totes in and out of 16,400 double-deep storage positions. Each shuttle rides on rails and operates only within its assigned level. Each aisle also has two lift elevators with platforms to raise and lower two totes at a time to the various levels and to outbound conveyors that transport the product totes to the picking stations. The four picking stations are located on a mezzanine above a portion of the pick-to-light area.
Two product totes are presented at a time to each workstation, so that one tote can be picked from while the other is departing the station to be replaced by another. The source tote is automatically tilted toward the worker to make item retrieval easier. SSI Schaefer supplied two types of source totes for the system. One is designed to hold a single SKU, while the other has compartments to hold up to four SKUs. A light in front of the tote illuminates to designate which compartment contains the needed SKU. A quantity indicator also displays how many of the fragrances, facial products, moisturizers, and other products to select. The worker then presses a lighted button to confirm pick completion.
A put-to-light system next directs placement of the picked items into four order cartons staged in the workstation. Similar to a pick-to-light setup, the system uses light displays to indicate which cartons should receive products, but only one carton is in play at any given time to assure accuracy. A weight scale at each position confirms that the carton receives the required items.
Once work is completed at the goods-to-person stations, the carton moves off to packing, unless the orders also need fast-moving items from the pick-to-light zones. If so, the carton will be conveyed to the floor level, where they enter the pick-and-pass system. The system also has the flexibility to reverse the pick order, starting with pick-to-light before moving to the goods-to-person area, if it alleviates a bottleneck.
Once all picking is complete, the orders move on to packing stations. From there, they're sent through a pop-up wheel sorter that is located on the 3PL side of the building, which consolidate the cartons for shipping.APPLYING A SOLID FOUNDATION
Among other benefits, the addition of the shuttle technology and the WMS upgrade have allowed the facility to batch orders. Management explains that the new goods-to-person shuttle technology was needed before the DC could handle the volume associated with batch processing. Without the new technology, the company would have had to double the number of active pick-to-light locations to be fully batch-managed. That would have required adding mezzanines, conveyors, and more. The process would also have been slower, according to the facility manager.
The shuttle technology offered an alternative, as it allows much denser storage for the slow-moving items. Many of the medium-movers are also being transitioned into the automated system, which makes the remaining pick-to-light areas even more effective since their locations now contain primarily faster-moving products that are hit more often.
Another reason for turning to batch management was to comply with increasingly strict European regulations for tracking and tracing cosmetics and other healthcare products. The facility uses first-expired, first-out processing. This requires that a batch be allocated to every single item picked and is another reason why the facility moved to being fully batch-managed now.
The new technology and software will make it possible for the facility to fill up to 180,000 lines per day with a high degree of accuracy and minimal labor.