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Meeting picking and packing challenges

PD: Did you suggest any other picking technologies to Michaels for their application?

Baudry: We can help customers evaluate different picking alternatives, but in this case, we did not, because we worked through Keogh Consulting on the project. Keogh had already worked with Michaels on an analysis of their stockkeeping velocity and movements ahead of time and had determined which technologies they thought would work for particular skus. I think pick-to-light was always a plan for the high-volume skus.

What we did work on with Michaels was determining how to handle their slower-moving, lower-volume skus?some of their odds and ends. We offered a couple of different suggestions, one being radio-frequency (RF)-directed pick carts, another involving RF only, and another using what we call a multiloc, or multiple-location, picking layout. With this type of layout, rather than having a pick light at every location where a product is slotted, you have just one light for an entire shelf. It basically reduces the number of lights that you have. It really is an economical way of handling the slower-moving skus, which Michaels has a lot of in that facility.

PD: What is the difference between the pick-to-light system that Michaels is using, the EASYpick® track light picking system, and other picking solutions?

Baudry: The major difference between the EASYpick track system and our traditional cabled light system, which we still offer, is that the track system allows the customer to reconfigure their lights very easily. So if a customer has a product that they re-slot frequently, or if the space that a product takes up on a rack changes frequently, this system makes it a lot easier for them to make these changes. With traditional systems, you have cables that you have to hook from one light to the next, and it's a fairly complicated. With the track light, each device is actually a mini computer. It's smart. So when you move a light, you can take it off of the rack, and unplug the power unit that it's actually touching when it's on the rack, and you move it to a new location. Then, you scan the location that you're moving it to, and it automatically changes the database to reflect where you just moved that light.

PD: What is the cost difference between this product and traditional cabled picking systems?

Baudry: Traditionally, a premium product is about 15-percent more than the cost of a cabled system, but the other thing to consider–and this is something we looked at in the Michaels' layout–is that the EASYpick device itself can be programmed. Software can be loaded onto the device, so that now you have a smart unit. The device offers a menu from which you can perform a number of tasks that you aren't able to do with a regular light. For example, if a customer wants to do some kind of query, or do what we call "a full" on a carton where they are closing a carton and starting a new one, rather than having to go to the main bay display to do these things, they can do it at the picking location.

So depending on the layout of the facility, you can actually cut back on the number of bay displays that you need. The bay displays are the most expensive units in the picking system, but with the EASYpick, you can get by with using the location display.

So, although the track light system is more expensive, we look at opportunities to cut back on other hardware that may not be necessary when you're using it, because the tracks have so much more functionality built into each device. A regular light just lights up, and that's pretty much all you can do with it.

The other advantage of the track light system is that because it is a smart device, it cuts down on maintenance time and costs, because the computer is continually sending out messages to the device to see if it's running. If the computer does not get a response from a device after "X" number of tries, an error message is sent to the supervisor's terminal, so that they know they have a problem with a device. With a traditional cabled device, you have to go through a whole series of tests to isolate the problem, because you're kind of guessing where the problem is.

PD: Is Michaels changing its pick locations frequently?

Baudry: This is a discussion we had with them before they bought this system. We gave them the option to buy the traditional cables, or the track light devices. A lot of times the vendors to Michaels will have to change location spots around a lot because Michaels will send them a new planogram for the year. So I have smaller companies that sell arts and crafts to Michaels that are constantly changing their slots around. When a vendor such as Michaels is sending things to their own stores, these changes occur a little less. But Michaels made the decision that they thought that they were going to be moving things around enough that the track light system made sense for them.

They also felt that the maintenance issue was a big deal, and they wanted more functionality at each location display. So I think that it was a combination of factors. But you're right, I really haven't seen Michaels doing a whole lot of re-slotting. I guess it was a call on their side to spend a little extra money to have the other things that they get with the system.

PD: How does the EASYpick OPS (Outbound Productivity Solutions) software work with Michaels' WMS (warehouse management system)?

Baudry: We basically download orders from their WMS, which is RedPrairie, and we get an order number, a location number to pick from, and a quantity to pick. At a very basic level, that's all that we need from them. At Michaels, we are actually getting more information; we have expanded what we're doing for them. We've added the ability to provide to the picker an estimated carton size to use, so that means we're keeping a table on their volumes and estimating what boxes they ought to be using.

But, whether you're using high-end functions or using the software at a basic level, you get all the order information. You don't need to upload anything back to the WMS. So, we get this bundle of order information, and EASYpick knows where all the orders start and where all of the picks for the orders are located. OPS manages taking the orders in because we have our routing control software in Hazleton. We may start an order in a zone where it has its first pick. Then it may have a couple picks out of this zone, and then the next pick for that order may be several zones down the stream. So, the picker will get a message that might say "pass to section 52," and the picker knows that it's out of his or her area. They will put the case on the conveyor, and by talking to the conveyor system, EASYpick will route it to the next zone. The reason Keogh implemented this design was so that Michaels wouldn't have pickers handling cases where they don't have a pick to go into them; they're letting the conveyor do that work.

PD: What are some of the other features of EASYpick OPS?

Baudry: With all of our software systems, even if you're just putting in pick-to-light with-out OPS, if the customer is using the software properly, they will see an increase in productivity, even greater then if they just put lights in and take paper orders out of somebody's hand. The software allows a supervisor to see in a graphical format in real-time, as people are picking, how each picker is doing. So, for instance, they can look at a bar graph, and they can see if they have a picker falling behind in a certain area. They can then make a management decision to perhaps make that person's work area smaller by splitting that area up and putting another person in it, or they can make the work area next to that picker's a little bigger, so that another employee can pick up the work. And our system allows the manager to do that on-the-fly all day long. I see customers who are really successful with this, and they have a supervisor who manages that work in progress.

We also provide productivity tracking of an individual, not a group, so that as soon as a person logs on, the system knows what they're picking, how fast they're picking, when they log on and when they log off. They can switch zones, and the software can track them from one area to another. So they are always measured against people who are in similar areas. Their productivity is kept in the system for up to 90 days. It can be kept longer, but it's provided in both a quantitative as well as a practical format.

The system also does what's called a recommended zone. So, based on the orders OPS receives from RedPrairie for the day, and since EASYpick is tracking a picker's historical pick rates in each area, the system knows how fast they normally pick. OPS gets the orders for the day, and the supervisor comes to the system and says, "Okay, I've ten pickers today. Based on the volumes coming though each area, where should I assign my pickers?" And then the system will make a recommendation to the supervisor of where to assign people. Based on that information, they supervisor will log people into the zones they think will work, based on the recommendations we've made. And, unless they see on the other work-in-progress graph that people are falling behind, it should work. If the supervisor does have to move pickers around, they don't have to shut down the system and make everyone stop working to replan. They're really just affecting the two people that they're moving.

The system also has the ability to do re-profiling. From a historical perspective, it shows you how many picks you've had at a location on a shelf. OPS keeps track so it sees that Michael's has a really high-moving item sitting on a bottom shelf, it ought to be moved to a middle shelf. OPS is not any type of planning tool, it doesn't forecast into the future, but it does give you a historical perspective on what you've been doing.

The system also provides content tracking and quality assurance. It is not doing QA at Michaels; Red Prairie is handling that. The system is just giving information back to RedPrairie, and Red Prairie is checking it to make sure that what is supposed to be in a carton is in a carton.

Some people buy pick-to-light, and they just put the lights on, where people pick without paper or just RF and they get a little bit of improvement and productivity because of that. But if you really use the picking system tools, then you can exponentially grow your productivity. Michaels has a good supervisor, and I think he does a good job of using all the tools.

PD: What challenges, if any, did you encounter with implementing the picking system at the Michaels' distribution center?

Baudry: We didn't have any challenges at Hazleton, because it was a new building. But we did do a second site with Michaels at almost the same time in Lancaster, CA, where the system was going into an existing operation, and that's always more difficult.

The most challenging requirement for Michaels is that they carry everything from pipe cleaners and Popsicle sticks to large items, and they can have picks where they're picking just one item. They carry such a variety of products, that it's challenging mostly from the perspective of managing their slotting. For us, it didn't present any challenges other than just helping them to come up with different options and different ways of handling different skus because the turnover on each sku is so different.

They do have the ability, if they go to a pick location and they're out of a product, to put that pick on hold and wait for inventory to get there. Also, if they notice that they're running low on inventory, they can send OPS a message and it will alert the WMS. Those are a couple of unique things that we implemented at the Hazleton facility. These features are available to any of our customers, but it was very important to Michaels, especially with some of the odd-ball items that they carry. As I said, probably the most challenging thing about their application is just the sheer volume that they handle, with some of the items turning over very quickly, and some you're picking one out of a bag of one thousand.

The Michaels' staff at Hazleton is a great group of people to work with. From a top level down, from a vendor perspective, they really take on vendors as partners. You'll have meetings with them, and you'll feel like you're part of their employee base. They've really been a pleasure to work with.

PD: What does training for EASYpick OPS consist of?

Baudry: We typically will have new employees train in a day, and they usually are hitting output that they normally would within the first week. I have one customer that supplies Michaels and Wal-Mart, and two weeks after he started the system, he let go of 50 percent of his labor force in the picking area. From just the picking part of it, it's just so easy to grasp. It takes the supervisors a little bit longer to grasp all the tools, but the straight picking is really easy.

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