Every house needs a door, and in the past 47 years, Top Notch Distributors has grown fast by meeting that need. Since its founding in a barn in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, in 1975, the family-owned company has grown into a leading wholesaler of architectural hardware. Today, it carries over 100 brands of door hardware, which it sells to customers like contract hardware distributors, locksmiths, retail lumberyards, hardware stores, and e-commerce sites.
But fast growth comes with growing pains, and Top Notch was no exception. So in recent years, the company has turned to autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) in a bid to boost fulfillment rates and customer service levels in its growing network of warehouses.
Although Top Notch still relies on wheeled carts and hand-held scanning guns to fill orders at its headquarters warehouse in Honesdale, during 2020, it added AMRs from robot developer 6 River Systems to its distribution centers in St. Charles, Missouri, and Carson City, Nevada. And in 2022, it rolled them out at its newest property, a 34,000-square-foot site in Mansfield, Massachusetts, where it had recently relocated from a smaller (15,000-square-foot) facility in the nearby town of Hingham.
The job went more smoothly than a previous installation, when the company had faced hurdles created by the pandemic. Because of social distancing requirements and other restrictions, Waltham, Massachusetts-based 6 River Systems was forced to implement its robots at the Nevada facility remotely. Nonetheless, the “Chuck” bots launched on schedule in both cases, and the benefits became clear almost immediately.
LESS SPACE, MORE (ORDER) FILLING
While Top Notch had moved to the new site to gain extra square footage, it found it was rapidly filling that extra space with new product based on customer demand. But thanks to the robotic automation, the company was still able to proceed with its expansion plans—and do it without hiring additional people. Where the old Hingham site had handled 8% of the distributor’s total product flow by order volume, the Mansfield site now handles 22%, Top Notch DC Manager Bob Wallace says.
On a recent site tour, visitors saw eight AMRs shuttling between stations, starting with an “induct” area where a worker loaded them up with empty boxes, envelopes, and order data. The bots then cruised the aisles, while a picker plucked inventory from racks and loaded it into the containers carried by the robots. When the work was complete, the bots headed to a “takeoff” station, where another worker removed the loaded boxes from the AMRs for sealing and labeling. That process has already cut the average distance walked per day by Top Notch employees to 3.5 miles from seven.
The new workflow also includes a protocol for handling the occasional error. If an anomaly is detected, the Chuck bots automatically bring the suspect order to a “hospital” station for exception handling, while managers monitor the entire process through a cockpit-type “bridge” that displays AMR locations, congestion, and progress on a smartphone or laptop screen, says Gillan Hawkes, vice president of product and analytics at 6 River Systems.
As for the transition to a “hybrid” human/robot workforce, Top Notch says the robots have been readily accepted by their human colleagues. For evidence of that, it points to the names printed on each Chuck bot, which were chosen by employee votes. These are the Boston suburbs, so it will come as no surprise to see “Rocky” (for local boxer Rocky Marciano), “Big Papi” (for Red Sox slugger David Ortiz), “Rocket” (for Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens), and “Chowdah” (for, well, clam chowder, of course).