Footwear and apparel maker Ariat is filling orders faster than ever from its new Fort Worth, Texas, distribution center thanks to an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) from warehouse robotics company Exotec. The maker of Western- and English-style riding boots, apparel, workwear, and accessories has been growing by leaps and bounds, and built the 1 million-square-foot DC in the fall of 2020 to accommodate skyrocketing demand for its products worldwide. Warehouse automation has been a key component in meeting that demand, and the company’s leaders say Exotec’s fast, flexible, and expandable system—which combines autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) with high-density storage—was the perfect alternative to its manual picking operations.
“Having the ability to quickly access a lot of SKUs, do all those combinations quickly, pick any type of order any day at any moment is setting us up well for success going forward,” Matt Hardenberg, Ariat’s vice president of distribution, said in a statement describing the project.
Founded in 1993, Ariat has expanded its footwear business over the years to include apparel and accessories, and today sells products direct to customers via e-commerce and through more than 6,500 retail locations throughout the United States, Europe, Mexico, and Japan. The company built the Fort Worth DC as an automated facility to accommodate that growth, phasing in a variety of high-tech systems beginning in the fall of 2020. The Exotec system was the last piece of the puzzle, and it automated the DC’s apparel picking and fulfillment operations, which had previously been done by hand.
Working with systems integrator Advanced Handling Systems (AHS), Ariat chose Exotec’s Skypod system because of its ability to easily connect and scale with the facility’s existing systems and meet customer demand. The Skypod system combines AMRs; ergonomic picking stations; modular conveyor systems that can be added to or reconfigured to support growth; high-density storage that consists of racks, bins, and trays that can also be scaled for growth; and warehouse software that orchestrates the system’s movements and can integrate with third-party equipment. The hallmark of the Skypod system is the robots’ ability to move three-dimensionally within the storage racking and then travel autonomously across the warehouse floor to deliver goods to workstations for packing and order fulfillment.
The Skypod system was up and running in 11 months, despite the pandemic-related challenges that plagued businesses in late 2020 and throughout 2021. The system initially included 57 AMRs, but Ariat increased the robot count by about 50% last summer to meet peak demands—a feat company leaders say was quick and easy and didn’t disrupt operations.
The results speak for themselves. Today, Ariat’s Skypod system consists of 71,758 bins and 86 robots, and can process 1,958 bins per hour—allowing the company to efficiently navigate seasonal peaks. The increased efficiency has also added up to big labor savings: Ariat’s managers say they’ve transitioned 80% of the facility’s picking labor to more productive, value-added tasks. And they’ve added next-day shipping and extended order cut-off times to improve customer service.
And that means greater peace of mind for a still-growing company.“We have the confidence that the system is going to perform to the level that’s going to allow us to fulfill our customers’ expectations on a daily basis,” Hardenberg said.
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