As one of the largest convenience-store distributors in the United States, Wisconsin-based Chambers & Owen stocks about 8,000 items that are individually picked, packed, and shipped to fill weekly orders from its customers throughout the Midwest. The three-shift-per-day operation can't afford a moment's downtime, so when the conveyor system in its fulfillment center was reaching the end of its life a few years ago, company leaders set out to find partners that could deliver a needed upgrade without shutting the system down for a second. Chambers & Owen partnered with systems integrator Modo 8 and conveyor solutions provider TREW Hilmot to get the job done, performing incremental installations of the system daily to keep the 252,000-square-foot Janesville, Wisconsin, facility up and running.
"We started [installing] in January and ended in May , and we never missed a day," reports Mike Sullivan, vice president of operations for Chambers & Owen. "The [fulfillment] process was fully running during this conversion."
The end result: a high-efficiency, low-maintenance system that has improved throughput and reduced fulfillment times, ensuring that local stores are kept fully stocked with candy, coffee, grocery items, snacks, beverages, tobacco products, and more.
Chambers & Owen's primary challenge was that its once state-of-the-art sortation and conveyor system wasn't able to keep pace with the times. Items needed to be picked and packed faster than ever before, but the system was often slowed down by various factors. Packaging is one example. The plastic packaging around a case of water, for instance, would often stick to the sides of the conveying system, especially in humid conditions, causing slowdowns or a backup. Item size is another example. Chambers & Owen wanted a conveyor system that could automatically adjust to items of different sizes and weights, keeping them centered so they wouldn't be pushed to the side and risk getting stuck.
"We have multiple sized boxes and multiple weights," Sullivan says, noting that inventory items can weigh anywhere from one pound to more than 70 pounds. "Conveyor systems have a hard time adjusting to differences in size and weight. [We wanted to know that] no matter what the size or weight of an item, it could be conveyed easily."
As for maintenance, the system's age made replacement parts hard to find. The distributor needed a system that worked faster and smarter, and that would allow on-site employees to diagnose and fix problems quickly. Reliability was key too.
"We wanted a reliable product," Sullivan adds. "Our last system worked well for us [for many years], so we wanted to continue that."
To solve all of these challenges, Modo 8 designed a system that uses high-efficiency motor-driven roller (MDR) TREW Hilmot conveyor. Features include polyurethane-coated rollers that help keep products from getting stuck. The system also addresses size and weight concerns.
"[The system is] constantly centering products so you can minimize any issue of products getting stuck," Sullivan explains.
The net result is a sortation and conveyor system that has increased throughput, reduced the amount of time it takes to pick and pack orders, and virtually eliminated errors. Products are picked and sent to the loading docks faster than ever, Sullivan says, and operational time has been cut by about an hour per night. In addition, the simplicity of the system, combined with remote diagnostic tools, has made it easier for staff to address any maintenance issues that might arise.
And perhaps best of all, employees have renewed confidence in the system's reliability and efficiency.
"Pickers are able to pick without worrying about the conveyor line backing up," Sullivan adds. "We're seeing nightly shifts done earlier, between 10% and 15%, since we've put the system in."