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Goods-to-person automation solution for HVAC distributor

The solution increased the distributor’s labor productivity significantly—to more than 180 lines an hour, per order. By MMH Staff

To resolve a three-point mandate from senior management—reduce the size of its 400,000-square-foot Vaughn, Ont.-based distribution center by 180,000 square feet; increase its order picking performance; and decrease operating costs—Noble, a regional distributor of HVAC, plumbing, electrical and pipe materials, created a cross team group of specialists.

The group contained experts from operations, engineering and IT, as well as outside consulting advice on layout and methods. Operations research focused first on order and SKU profiles. The order profiles included store delivery, daily deliveries to construction sites and urgent walk-in clients, while the SKU activity profiles isolated pallet, pipe and “each pick” SKUs into subsets, which were then further divided into activity bands of fast, medium and slow-to-dead items.

The team soon discovered that a relatively small percentage of SKUs were responsible for most of the activity. So, with regard to small items, it decided to compress less than 5% of SKUs—generating roughly 14% of all lines—into a tight, small carton flow zone. Medium to slow items were considered next, as mini-stacker cranes, vertical carousels and horizontal carousels were each considered for high density, high speed and goods-to-person solutions.

After eliminating vertical carousels and mini-stackers for various technical and cost-related reasons, Noble’s team developed an extremely dense and high performance, carousel-based, goods-to-person solution. Featuring a configuration of three pods of four carousels, the solution was equipped with high-speed, pick-to-light automation and compressed parts, which were previously spread over hundreds of thousands of square feet—into a single building bay that is smaller than 25,000 square feet.

Upon completion of the goods-to-person transition, Noble said it had achieved a labor productivity increase—from 20 to 30 lines an hour (per order) to more than 180 lines an hour—all within a month. Not to mention, with tinkering, the team expects to eventually exceed 200 lines per hour, well over Noble’s initial target of 140 lines an hour.

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