Corporate Express Canada Streamlines Picking at Distribution Centers

Handling 12,000 SKUs and shipping 45,000 items total daily from its eight distribution centers, Corporate Express Canada teams up with Dematic to implement a state-of-the-art paperless picking solution.

by Jim McMahon

Many distribution centers are still picking product the old fashioned way, with paper, and not just small DCs either - some very large corporations have yet to switch to paperless picking many years was picking with paper, but recently re-designed its entire picking operations within all of its eight distribution centers in Canada. For a company moving millions of dollars worth of office supplies every day through its combined Canadian DCs, the decision to make the change to paperless was no small one, and it had to be executed with minimal interference to the operation of its DCs.

Upgrading to paperless picking does not necessarily mean having to fully automate the operation with sortation and conveying equipment. For Corporate Express Canada, only one of its eight DCs was outfitted with a streamlined conveying and sortation system, but all facilities were re-designed to incorporate a state-of-the-art picking capability.

The change involved not only moving to a very sophisticated voice-directed picking technology, but one which also provided a capability which is completely unique in the industry - an operational picking platform spanning the entire picking environment including picking, inventory control and customer-level transactions through the ERP. The system, developed by Dematic, not only put the company on the forefront of cutting edge picking technology, it also increased the company’s labor-hour picking throughput by 300 percent and reduced picking errors throughout its eight Canadian DCs.

Corporate Express, Inc. is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Buhrmann, NV, an international business services and distribution group. Buhrmann is a leading global supplier of office products and graphic systems for the business marker. The company’s product offering includes office and computer supplies, desktop software, imaging and computer graphics supplies, document and print management, and office furniture.

The company has operations in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. Through strategic partnerships, Corporate Express can also deliver products to China, Finland, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Mexico, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Slovenia, Switzerland, and Taiwan.

Its North American operations have more than 200 facilities, including 38 distribution centers, employing 10,775 people. The company is one of the largest office product suppliers in the world. Corporate Express revenue for 2006 was $8.3 billion internationally, with 2006 sales of approximately $5 billion systems. One large company which has just made the switch is Corporate Express Canada, who for in North America.

Corporate Express Canada operates eight DCs throughout the country including facilities in Halifax, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Mount Pearl, Edmonton, Mississauga, and Montreal - these facilities require a bilingual picking system in both English and French. The biggest of the DCs are Montreal and Mississauga, each about 130,000 square feet of fully automated facility. Combined, the Canadian DCs handle 12,000 SKUs and ship 10,000 orders daily encompassing 45,000 items.

“We were looking at productivity enhancements, capacity growth and standardization of several functions within the operation,” says Ed Meyer, Vice President Operations, Corporate Express Canada. “The company has been experiencing very rapid growth in Canada for some time now and our distribution capability is critical to the company’s promise to deliver exactly what the customer orders, and deliver it on-time, complete and correct.”

“Two major changes in operation were planned for our DCs,” continues Meyer. “One was to shift seven of our eight facilities from conveyors and sortation over to picking carts - Mississauga continues to use conveyor and sortation equipment. The other was to implement voice picking technology into all of our DCs, as we were operating with paper picking and looking for a more efficient picking operation.”

“With the pick carts put into place we are able to pick 30 to 40 orders at a time on a cart. Then take it right to the loading docking area,” Meyer says, “This has allowed us to improve our flexibility and capacity to deal with orders in the DCs. With 12,000 SKUs this has proved to be an extremely workable system for us.”

“For the picking system, we already had success implementing Dematic’s pick-to-voice into our United States DCs, so we decided to mirror that in Canada,” Meyer explains. “We asked the engineers at Dematic to design a voice picking system, and what they presented was a comprehensive solution centered around their PickDirector capability.”

PickDirector is a Windows and SQL database product that is able to uniquely operate voice picking technology, pick-to-light systems, put-to-light systems and RF based picking solutions all in a single platform.

The system takes order information directly from the Corporate Express ERP system and delivers it to the picker. With no paperwork, operators pick with both hands instead of just one. Tasks such as reading, writing, and searching for stock locations are eliminated. Pickers wear a portable, belt-mounted speech recognition device and a headset. The terminal communicates to the host computer via standard RF. This highly effective paperless picking method eliminates pick lists. Operators simply listen, speak and scan.

The Corporate Express warehouses have picking processes taking place for replenishment, picking processes that are case-based for large items such as toner cartridges and cartons of paper. It also has small-order items like individual ink pens and reams of paper. These are now all controlled by one overall software program, designed by Dematic, that enables a single-screen view of the entire picking operation within the warehouse.

PickDirector order management capabilities include wave processing, intelligent batching to improve productivity, and the ability to sore orders by priority, destination, customer and other scenarios. It supports a wide range of picking hardware. It can easily integrate with routing and sortation systems to increase efficiency and track containers and their contents.

In the Mississauga facility, where Corporate Express is using conveyors and sortation equipment, PickDirector also controls a system called Zone Routing which gives it the capability to control the movement of specific cartons after picking, for special handling like quality assurance and priority routing. The system is linked with the ERP to automatically route an order to a number of different pick stations to be fulfilled before it releases the order to the shipping sorter. This is fully interwoven with the picking system, which gives a higher degree of efficiency in movement and accuracy across the entire operation.

“Traditionally, in zone routing the conveyer control system assumes that if the carton went to the correct zone that the order has been picked,” says Timothy Post, Technology Specialist with Dematic. “The carton is thrown back on the conveyer regardless if the pick was actually done, or not, and it does not return to the zone. This can result in an incomplete order. The system at Corporate Express is different – the conveyer will send that carton into the zone again, and it will keep sending it to the zone until the conveyer system gets the message that all of the picks have been done correctly. This is a unique application which is built into the system resulting in a much higher level of accuracy in order fulfillment.”

“The system also has the ability to do on-the-fly processing,” continues Post. “If an order has an exception, for example a short pick, it gets processed to an exception location. Traditional systems will not necessarily have that on a short pick. Normally, an order would have to go through an audit or it would have to be manually handled. The Corporate Express system automatically introduces a divert command to re-direct it based on the position of the carton.”

Corporate Express’ paperless picking system prevents misreads and mistakes in data entry, dramatically reducing picking errors, as well as expensive and time-consuming quality control procedures.

The switchover from paper to pick-to-voice for each DC was done over the period of just one weekend. On a Friday that DC would be picking on paper, then on the following Monday it would be on a voice system. The entire project, upgrading eight separate DCs, was begun in June, 2006 and competed by December.

“The new system increases in productivity have knocked the ball out of the park compared to what we had before,” continues Meyer. “With the paper picking we were doing 55 to 60 items per hour. Within two to three days of implementation, we had pickers already averaging about 70 items per hour, and some pickers doing up to 150 items per hour, which is almost three times faster than with paper. Our goal is to get pickers up to 170 to 200 items hourly, and we are confident we can reach this with the new system. Throughput, taking into consideration all employees in the warehouse, is up from approximately 25 lines-per-hour to about 32 lines. This represents a 50 percent increase in overall production.”

The newly re-designed, super-streamlined picking system within Corporate Express Canada’ eight DCs now provides the support the company needs to sustain its phenomenal growth throughout the Canadian market.

About Dematic Corp. - Based on a rich tradition of over 70 years of worldwide industry expertise in creating logistics results and more than 10,000 systems installed worldwide, Dematic Corp is the world’s leading supplier of logistics automation solutions, systems and service.

Beginning with Rapistan’s rich history from gravity conveyors to automated, modular conveyor and sortation solutions, Dematic now offers a full range of engineered and highly configurable system solutions that optimize warehousing and distribution operations. With Dematic, companies can reduce distribution costs, maximize overall logistics efficiencies, and increase the operating speed of their supply chain.

Dematic is a global company with operations in 22 countries around the world. Its North American headquarters is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For genuine Rapistan conveyor system parts, or more Dematic information, visit www.dematic.us

For more information on Dematic DC solutions, contact:
John P. Clark, Manager of Communication
Dematic Corp.
507 Plymouth Ave., N.E.
Grand Rapids, MI 49505
616-913-7287
Fax 616-913-7701
Email

To reach Corporate Express, please contact:
Ed Meyer, Vice President Operations Canada
Corporate Express Canada
1 Environmental Way
Broomfield, CO 80021
Phone 905-696-4242
Email
website www.corporateexpress.ca

Jim McMahon writes on logistics automation.