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Discount Auto gets more mileage out of new DC

In special pick areas containing aerosol products, hazardous materials and high-dollar items, as well as non-conveyable items, operators use light-directed carts and RF-based technology to fulfill orders.

For Discount Auto Parts, Inc. in late 1998, the glamour of road-tripping had lost its allure. Having grown far beyond its origins in Lakeland, FL, the automotive aftermarket retailer was struggling to meet the needs of its 660 retail locations throughout the southeastern U.S. With limited stockroom space, retailers were increasingly looking to Discount to provide shortened delivery cycles and mixed-load pallets to new locations that included Alabama, southern Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and east Texas.

Not only was the company's existing Lakeland warehouse inconveniently positioned to serve many of the new retail outlets, but it also lacked the technological capabilities to serve Discount's growing customer base. Relying on a conventional RF-based (radio-frequency-based) system, with little integration and minimum picking automation, the DC was overwhelmed by the company's increasing fulfillment requirements.

What Discount needed was a second DC that could relieve the pressure on the Lakeland facility, while cost-effectively servicing the daily needs of its new retail outlets. Due to its central location in the projected growth area, Gallman, MS, was chosen as the location for a new, 418,000-sq-ft, state-of-the-art DC.

To create a scalable solution utilizing the lastest material-handling technologies for cost-effective, efficient and accurate fulfillment, Discount partnered with the FKI Logistex Distribution Team. By integrating the capabilities of its member companies Alvey Systems, Real Time Solutions and White Systems, specializing in conveying and palletizing, intelligent picking, and carousel equipment, respectively, the FKI team created a seamless, single-source solution with a high-tech approach to automated material flow.

Says Hank Kirk, national accounts manager for Alvey, "We knew the distribution center would require a variety of picking technologies to achieve its goals. A total solution was required for its order fulfillment process. The challenge was to design a state-of-the-art system with regard to efficiency while still providing the flexibility to easily expand its capabilities as volumes increase in the future."

Within 13 months, Discount and FKI Logistex designed, installed and commissioned a system that provides increased productivity, with an estimated 50-percent efficiency gain over its Lakeland counterpart, and the flexibility to double its size and volume in the coming years. In Part 1 of this article, we discussed a solution that allows Discount to engage in full-pallet-layer picking using a gantry robot coupled with two pallet carousels. This month's story focuses on the other picking technologies implemented in the Gallman DC, as well as the provisions made in the facility design for expansions in the business.

Split-case accuracy ensured
While the 15 highest-velocity items in the DC–discovered by Discount during the facility design process to make up 35 percent of its full-case volume–are picked mostly in full pallet layers, its 19,000 medium- to slow-velocity stockkeeping units are picked in split-case and small, full-case volumes. This is accomplished using 28 White Systems' bottom-drive horizontal carousels, divided into seven pods of four carousels each. Each 8-ft carousel consists of 50 bins, resulting in a 1,000-lb/bay capacity. Each bay has 24 to 36 bins, depending on the size and velocity of each sku.

Split-case order picking in the carton flow rack, above, occurs at one of two 400-ft-long, three-level pick-to-light systems, right.

Terry Hinton, systems sales manager for White Systems, stresses that efficient use of floorspace was an essential element of Discount's expansion planning. "We introduced several different concepts that radically changed the building design and gained a lot of floorspace. The carousel installation comprises three levels and squeezes in as many skus as possible. This allows us to keep aisles wide enough to accommodate more-economical, standard-sized forklifts," he says.

Picked in batches of up to 16 at a time, orders are downloaded to the order management software, which spins the carousels into position. Directed by the software, the system's Lightree points out the location on the carousel and indicates the quantity to be picked. The operator then places the selected items into the correct plastic tote, as directed by a lighted Sortbar on the conveyer.

This two-tiered carousel system delivers high throughput, density and accuracy, notes Randy Peters, Discount's senior project manager for the new DC. "Compared to the rates achieved at the Lakeland center, the Gallman facility has realized an increase of 200 percent, managing up to 320 picks an hour using the small, full-case carousels, and an 85-percent increase with the split-case carousels, processing 430 picks an hour," he says.

Split-case order picking for Discount's approximately 9,000 faster-moving skus is carried out using two 400-ft-long, three-level carton flow-rack modules integrated with pick-to-light technology. Created by Real Time Solutions, EASYpick? pick-to-light technology is a paperless order fulfillment system that uses flashing lights to direct order fillers to exact pick locations and LED displays to indicate the correct pick quantity.

Once the operator has located the correct product and amount, he or she places the item(s) into a plastic tote that is then sent to an Alvey sortation system. Pick-to-light is also used with full-case items, which are placed directly on the sortation conveyor. Waist-level placement of the conveyors in the pick-to-light areas increases ergonomic safety by reducing heavy lifting, and eliminates wasted movement, thereby speeding up the picking process, notes Peters.

Commenting on the success of the picking systems, he says: "The overall gain of all systems combined in the infant stages has been remarkable. In this new facility, we are averaging between 430 and 543 average picks per manhour versus 256 to 277 in our Lakeland facility."

RF handles special items
RF picking technology from Real Time Solutions combined with Symbol Technologies hand-held scanners is used in several ways with 2,700 additional skus. In the first, it is coupled with five Real Time EASYpick GoKarts to fulfill orders for aerosol products, hazardous materials such as auto paint, and high-dollar items like car stereos. Here, the order filler scans a bar code on the pick ticket to identify a pick location on the scanner and then takes a light-directed GoKart with 10 totes to the correct pick location. The operator then batch-picks the items and puts them into totes based on light-specified quantities on each tote. The operator then moves on to the next scanner-identified pick location, until the order is completed.

RF technology is also used by operators to locate non-conveyable items and promotional store displays. Order pickers scan a pick ticket, and then put the items onto pallets, which they move to the appropriate shipping lane location using pallet jacks supplied by Crown Equipment Corp.

While gantry- and RF-picked pallets of items are staged directly to the shipping lanes, all other pick-area products are placed on pick conveyors that connect with accumulation zones on the upper-level mezzanines. From there, the products are merged, metered and scanned onto an Alvey Unisort 10a flat-slat shoe sorter that sends orders to the appropriate shipping lane for each store location in a batch of 10. Next, toted and full-case items are stacked on the gantry and RF pallets to fill out incomplete pallet layers in the order. The pallets are then stretch-wrapped for transportation to individual stores.

Room to grow
Last November, Discount was acquired by Advance Auto Parts, a Roanoke, VA-based retailer of auto parts and accessories. Between the two companies, the combined number of retail locations totals more than 2,400 stores in 38 states, primarily in the eastern, midwestern and southeastern regions of the U.S., and in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Because of the acquisition, the Gallman facility will soon be servicing both Discount and Advance stores, allowing it to leverage its state-of-the-art systems to efficiently replenish a greater number of stores.

Luckily, every area in the Gallman facility was designed to accommodate the additional retail growth expected during the next five years. Serving 150 stores at startup and shipping 650 pallet loads/week, the DC has the capacity to ultimately serve 500 retail locations. Space provisions have been made to service a total of 16 shipping destinations and to house 20 more picking carousels, along with 1,300 new pick-to-light locations. The gantry arm also has the ability to pick from the top-27 highest-velocity skus–expandable from the current program of 15 items.

Discount has also purchased enough land at the site to build a second, mirror facility adjacent to the first. Because the sortation system, with a current rate of 85 cases or totes/min, is mechanically capable of rates in excess of 200 sorts/min, it could therefore handle the output from a second building, as well.

Overall, the financial investment in the Gallman facility had distinct advantages over a more conventional installation. The decrease in conveyor length required because of the carousel modules used and the corresponding savings in warehouse floorspace offset the additional expense incurred by the choice of the robotic gantry arm. The gantry system alone picks approximately 1,100 cases/hr, a tremendous improvement over the 170/hr average rate of the Lakeland facility.

Roy Martin, vice president, supply chain & logistics for Discount, says he already sees an ROI on labor costs with the new DC. "After only a few weeks of full operation, we already have found that the design and technology have allowed us to reduce our original projected staffing levels by twenty-nine percent.

"And, the facility's location has allowed us to offset up to one million dollars per year due to shortened truck routes," he adds. "We are currently fulfilling twenty-five percent of the Lakeland volume at what we feel are higher quality rates and what appear to be higher overall order-filling rates."

Adds Martin, like a high-performance sportscar running at just a fraction of its maximum speed, the Gallman facility has just begun to utilize its full capabilities–"a very bright note for the future."

More information is available:

Line integration: FKI Logistex, 877/935-4564. Circle No. 206.

Conveyors, sorter: Alvey Systems, Inc., 800-325-1596. Circle No. 207.

Pick-to-light, RF carts, technology: Real Time Solutions, 510/985-6300. Circle No. 208.

Horizontal carousels: White Systems, Inc., 908/272-6700. Circle No. 209.

RF scanners: Symbol Technologies, Inc., 800/722-6234. Circle No. 210.

Pallet jacks: Crown Equipment Corp., 419-629-2311. Circle No. 211.

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