Distribution and Materials Handling Focus: Our Weekly Feature Article on Topics Related to Distribution Management and Material Handling Strategies and Technologies  
  - December 2, 2008 -  

Logistics News: Looking Back on 10 Years of Distribution Center Automation at totes Isotoner

pdf of this article


Innovated Split Cases Picking Design Approach Has Stood Test of Time, Now Becomes Mainstream; Learn how the System Evolved Over Time, and Why


SCDigest Editorial Staff

We often read stories about new automation systems – sometimes before they even go live – but few about systems that have been in place for many years.  Here, at last, is a good opportunity to understand how automated systems can evolve over time, plus a few great ideas that you may be able to adopt to ensure your system stays healthy and productive for the long term.

SCDigest Says:
One good indication of the success that totes Isotoner has experienced with the system over its 10-year history is that the start of the peak shipping system has been pushed forward about 4 weeks. This is due in part to the confidence that its customers have gained in totes Isotoner’s ability to fill orders accurately and to ship on-time.

Click Here to See Reader Feedback

During the summer of 1997, totes, the iconic maker of umbrella and other gear, announced it was buying glove and slipper maker Isotoner from Sara Lee. That would ultimately lead to an innovative, industry-leading plan that would consolidate three non-mechanized DCs into a single, new automated 450,000 sq. ft. facility located just north of Cincinnati. One key to the deal, in fact, was the perceived opportunity to drastically reduce distribution costs in the combined companies, especially on the Isotoner side, where distribution excellence had not been a strong focus.

Once the decision was made, the pressure was on. The DC had to be designed with an imperfect understanding of the Isotoner business, so flexibility was critical. There was also a factor of time. Both totes and Isotoner had hugely seasonal businesses – a significant portion of the volume came in the Christmas season. That meant a new DC had to be running by mid-summer 1998 – or a whole year more would pass before distribution strategies could really be achieved.

Finally, both businesses had a heavy piece-pick volume, and making that efficient would be key to overall system success.

Here’s the story of how totes Isotoner made it happen, along with some lessons learned along the way, and how this system, with some evolution, is still running strong 10 years later.

In an interesting side note, the project at totes was led on the vendor side by SCDigest Editor Dan Gilmore and Materials Handling Editor Cliff Holste, both working at the time for Forte Industries. They both recently went back to totes Isotoner 10 years later to see how things had worked out, and to talk to Doug Baker, in 1998 director of engineering and now VP of Operations for totes.

General System Overview

The new DC was outfitted with approximately 35,000 pallet positions, some 5000 case flow lanes for split case picking, a large value-added services area, and an automated shipping sorter with 29 divert lanes.

Shipping was heavy LTL, but with strong use of truckload and parcel as well. Retail customer requirements mandated UCC-128 labeling on almost all cases, carton content labels on split cases, and EDI Advanced Ship Notices. Many items also required customer-specific price ticketing. Compliance-related fines had been a big problem at Isotoner – reducing those substantially was a key goal of the new system.

The DC required a new WMS, from Manhattan Associates, and comprehensive use of RF terminals. It included automatic print and apply for UCC-128 labels, using two labelers to provide redundancy in case one had mechanical problems or required a new roll of labels or ribbon, etc.

But the real heart of this system was the innovative design of the split case picking area.

(Distribution and Materials Handling Article - Continued Below)


Download Longbow Advantage

Business Briefs



The Keys to WMS Success,

Maximizing JDA WMS

Performance and More







Innovative Picking and Sortation System Design Has Stood the Test of Time, but Continuous Improvement is Also Key

To meet the heavy split case picking requirements, Holste designed an Automated Zone Picking system. Innovative in 1998, the approach has become more commonplace, but is still far from widely adopted despite the benefits over traditional pick and pass.

The fundamental approach of the system was to route cartons to each zone for which picks were required. The cartons were automatically diverted left or right off the conveyor running through the middle of each pick module when those cartons reached the next zone for which there were picks.

In each zone, an operator could take one or multiple cartons (cluster picking). They would scan each carton in the “train” as they were moved along a static roller conveyor attached to the main powered conveyor line. The WMS would then direct the picking in location sequence for that zone, sequentially indicating how many of each SKU in the zone were required for each of the cartons in the group.

This cluster picking approach was key to improving split case productivity.

When the last pick for the last carton in the train was complete, the cartons were either closed (if all picks complete, as indicated by the RF terminal) and a carton content label printed in the zone and applied to the box. Cartons with picks in other zones, as well as closed cartons, were put back on the conveyor system.

Completed cartons moved via conveyor to the sortation system, while cartons with additional picks were then conveyed to the next zone for which they had picks. There were 24 split case zones, consisting of four modules, stacked two high (2 x 2), each with three zones on each side. A carton could make stops at several zones on the way to being completed. 

The approach obviously required sophisticated functionality in both the WMS and conveyor control system to make use of the material handling design.

The system was designed for throughput: totes had the potential to process 70% of its annual shipping volumes in just 100 days during the peak season of August to the end of October.

While the split case picking system has survived 10 years, totes has made some changes based on insight from operations, which are discussed at the end of this article.

Full Case Picking

The budget didn’t allow for complete automation of full case picking, so a limited amount of double deep pallet flow racks were provided along a single conveyor line, designed for the highest volume SKUs. Other full case picks were made via order picker trucks and manually placed on a conveyor leading to the sorter platform.

As they neared the sorter, an automatic label print and apply system handled UCC-128 labeling (split case cartons already had a UCC-128 applied as part of the picking process, and entered from a different merge point onto the sorter).

A scanner read each carton’s I 2 of 5 case bar code, and the conveyor control system looked up the customer distribution for that SKU, printing the correct label format and data for each carton.

Article Continued on Page 2

Send an Email
l .