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Cliff Holste is Supply Chain Digest's Material Handling Editor. With more than 30 years experience in designing and implementing material handling and order picking systems in distribution, Holste has worked with dozens of large and smaller companies to improve distribution performance.

Logistics News

By Cliff Holste

July 10, 2013

Can DCs Satisfy Special Requests Efficiently?

Adopting Software & Automation That Drives Customer Service Solutions

In 1974 Burger King created the slogan “Have-it-your-way” suggesting that they would provide their food items with whatever combination of available condiments the customer requested. Some of us, who are that ancient, remember the commercials. No doubt this was a very successful sales campaign for BK and forced their competitors to offer more choices.

Because consumers have different wants and needs, the slogan caught-on quickly and had a huge affect on the way individual value added services (VAS) were offered across a wide range of diverse B2C and B2B service providers.

For example - in warehousing and distribution some logistics providers agreed to ship mixed SKU pallet loads, which consisted of a few layers of two or three different products, referred to as a rainbow pallet. Then, a few of the big box retailers required promotional pallets for end-of-aisle sales displays. Rather than layers of product, the DC had to build columns of product. By stacking product in columns customers can more easily select the product they want. However, building these special pallet load configurations is done manually and separate from the normal order picking cycle requiring additional handling, staging and shipping coordination.

Holste Says:

One such solution is in some ways like a huge vending machine that has mini-load storage retrieval capability including an output that can sequence product to robotic palletizers in whatever order is required to build a stable load while attempting to satisfy the customer's requirements.
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Retailers, who are always looking for ways to optimize their in-store labor requirements, are now beginning to request mixed SKU pallet loads that are arranged by aisle and product putaway location within the aisle. This extreme pallet building capability is well beyond the pale for most DCs. Manually building such a pallet, while keeping it stable enough to transport, is a complex and time consuming challenge analogues to the famous Rubik’s Cube 3-D puzzle, only much more physical and precarious.


Enter the New Age of Automatic Product Sequencing

Clearly the bar for meeting customers’ order fulfillment requirements has been raised. The good news is that material handling technology (equipment, controls, and software) is now sophisticated enough to enable DCs to build customer specific pallet loads safely and cost effectively.

One such solution is in some ways like a huge vending machine that has mini-load storage retrieval capability including an output that can sequence product to robotic palletizers in whatever order is required to build a stable load while attempting to satisfy the customer’s requirements. Open-source software enables a robot controller to “teach itself” the movements required for a palletizing task. Multiple robotic functions operate with dual and triple arm technology and, using an actuator based system, can perform six to eight different functions at the same time.

In operations where manual labor is used to palletize, in addition to sequencing the cases, 3-D graphic displays show the worker where to place each case throughout the building operation - eliminating the tedious trial and error guess work. While these solutions take advantage of well established hardware, they are driven by sophisticated software programs based on complex algorithms.

In addition to building customer specific pallet loads, automatic product sequencing systems can deliver product in the required sequence to fluid-load trailers. It takes a lot of labor to identify and stage a trailer’s worth of product into the right loading sequence. This equates to another big opportunity for automated technology which ends up being a combination in which traditional sorting and conveying equipment integrates with new equipment and software to deliver case-level products in a customer specific sequence.

Final Thoughts

The customer service challenge for logistic providers is similar to that faced by the automotive and fast food industries decades ago - giving customers what they want and doing it efficiently.

The once all manual automobile assembly line has evolved into a highly automated process. The strategy is based on continuous improvement as many of the important safety and convenience features, that were dealer add-ons in the past, are factory installed on today’s cars. And so it will be for the DC - manual processes like picking cases and stacking them on pallets are being replaced with fully automated processes. This trend will continue simply because it is the most cost effective and efficient solution to Have-it-your-way”.

As Supply Chain Digest reported from the exhibit floor of ProMat 2013 (Part 1 and Part 2) this past January, there are several domestic and off-shore providers of automated handling equipment and system solutions.


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