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Working through the backlogs at M&F Western Products

The leading supplier of western wear accessories installed a WMS, conveyor and batch picking at its new facility. As a result, the company is no longer dealing with backlogs while accommodating growth. By Bob Trebilcock

People don’t go to a car show to look at the minivans or compact cars. They want to see the luxury vehicles and the sports cars. After all, those vehicles are sleek, fast and flashy. But, when it comes to picking up the kids at soccer practice, let’s face it: There are a lot of Civics and Grand Caravans in the parking lot because that’s all most of us need, or can afford, to get from here to there.

The same idea is true in materials handling automation. The latest automation and robotic technologies are the BMWs and Porsches of our industry. Yet, the vast majority of distribution centers are still struggling to get things out the door because they’re paper-based and manual. To get to the next level of productivity, most operations need some basic automation, data collection tools and a Tier 2 warehouse management system (WMS)

This was certainly the case at M&F Western Products, a nearly 50-year-old, family-owned wholesaler of western wear accessories located in Sulphur Springs, Texas—everything from belt buckles to western boots and hats. Founded by Mickey and Linda Eddins, who are still active in the business, it is managed by their sons Paul, who is CFO; John, who is vice president of operations; and David, who is in charge of product development. The company’s go-to-market strategy is to maintain a large inventory ready for immediate shipment, according to Paul Eddins. “We have a lot of competitors for different categories, like hats,” he says. “However, we stock deep in every category. We are your one-stop shop for all of your western wear accessories.”

M&F Western’s challenge in recent years was to keep up with growth. With a mishmash of facilities and paper-based fulfillment operations, M&F Western struggled to get orders out the door. To improve efficiency and throughput, the brothers worked with a system integrator and designer (enVista, to modify a WMS and then design a new 100,000-square-foot, pick-and-pack area in one of its existing facilities, complete with mobile computing and bar code scanning, a conveyor system and three pick zones, including a mezzanine.

It’s not flashy—the conveyor system is simple and order selectors still hand scan items to carts—but by using a pick-and-pass, batch picking methodology and a recirculating conveyor at the pack stations, the backlogs are gone. “We’re paperless, we’re organized for efficiency and we don’t get bogged down, even during our busy season,” says Paul. “And, we have excess capacity for growth. We’ve never had that before.” 

See how the system works.

Out of space, out of time
Founded in 1969 by Mickey and Linda Eddins,M&F Western Products is the leading distributor and manufacturer of western wear accessories. “We have the largest inventory on hand, the quickest distribution and the latest fashions,” says Paul. “We built our reputation on fast, consistent shipping of quality western accessories.”

The company can ship up to 99% of new orders from stock and growth has been constant. “Going back to 2005, we had about seven straight years where we grew 10% to 25% per year,” Paul says. That was a problem: Pick-and-pack operations couldn’t keep up with the volume of orders. “Our peak season begins in November and continues through January, when the biggest trade show of the year is held in Denver,” says Paul. “During peak, we needed up to 10 business days to ship and just couldn’t catch up.”

The Eddins brothers attribute the bottleneck to the way the company had expanded its operations over the years. A 130,000-square-foot, pick-and-pack facility was located at its company offices. Meanwhile, it built smaller buildings for storage on a separate 9-acre tract of land as needed. By 2011, trucks were making a dozen trips a day between the storage locations and the pick-and-pack operations. And, due to a poor layout in the pick-and-pack operation, order selectors just couldn’t keep up. Paper-based processes compounded the problem.

“Our pick locations were too small, so we had to replenish a couple of times a day,” says John. “Replenishers were trying to work in the same aisles as pickers. And, a picker walked a pick cart through the entire warehouse to fill an order. We knew we had to do something.”

Incremental change
Rather than do a Big Bang and roll out everything at once, the Eddins brothers took an incremental, step-by-step approach to improving their operations. While slow, each new step leveraged the previous steps.

This process began in April 2012 with the implementation of a WMS. Prior to this, M&F Western relied on an inventory management module with limited tracking capabilities in its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to know what it should have on hand. Pick tickets directed an order selector to the pick location where product was supposed to be, but that didn’t necessarily mean the stock was there. Replenishment orders weren’t entered for depleted pick faces until the end of the day. “There were few inventory rules in place if someone picked up a product and moved it to a new location or if a location was depleted,” John says. “We had limited visibility into where product was located.”

To ease the transition, M&F Western initially continued to issue paper pick tickets. That was followed by having order selectors scan a bar code on a pick ticket to receive instructions, but still pick one order at a time. The WMS and automatic data collection brought discipline and visibility to other processes, such as directed putaway into a pick location and replenishment that was driven by min/max levels. “Once we got through the learning curve, we saw improvements in productivity and accuracy,” Paul says.

Still, those improvements were overshadowed by the continued growth of the company. “We had much better visibility into who was picking what orders, but during peak season, we were still processing orders that were three or four days old,” says John. “We just couldn’t seem to get ahead.”

New facility, new design
Once the WMS was in place, M&F Western brought in a system integrator to help with modifications, such as entering weights and dimensions so the system could containerize the orders it was releasing to the floor. Then, in the fall of 2012, the brothers broke ground for a new facility on the 9-acre tract of land. “We knew we needed a new building, but we still had a lot of questions about what we were going to do differently,” says Paul.

Those questions included the layout of the facility, how to make the best use of the square footage and cube of the building, and what level of automation would meet their present and future needs. The system integrator helped them select the right equipment for their operations, and designed the layout, flow and new processes for the facility.

For instance, the new facility features a conveyor system to induct orders, route the totes through various picking zones and deliver them to packing and shipping. “We did a cost-benefit analysis of a number of new technologies and realized we didn’t need a high level of automation,” says Paul. “But, the conveyor system helps reduce travel time.”

A second big change was the implementation of three distinct picking zones to enable pick-and-pass batch picking. One pick zone is a one-level picking area; the other two zones are on the two-level mezzanine. In the old facility, an order selector had to walk the entire warehouse path to pick an order. In the new facility, order totes are sent to pick zones with items for that order.

Order selectors still place the totes on carts to do their picks, but they are only responsible for their picking area. Once everything is picked, the totes are conveyed to the next zone or to packing. “Associates are still walking, but if you have an order with five totes, they can be picked simultaneously in the other zones,” John says.

Using a mezzanine over the floor for one area optimizes the cubic space in the facility. The design of the pick locations, which are large enough to hold two master cartons, also help to maximize space.

“Each location can hold 20 days of inventory, and we set the min/max levels so that we replenish in full master cartons,” says Paul, adding that cartons replenish from the rear of the carton flow rack so as not to interfere with picking. “That may be more inventory than we need, but it makes replenishment simple and efficient. Pickers are no longer waiting for replenishments to complete their orders.”

allows the order inductor to make decisions about what orders to release to even out the workflow.
Finally, a recirculation conveyor in the packing area organizes totes for a packer. If one tote of a multi-tote order arrives early, it recirculates until the rest of the order arrives at packing. 

The facility went live in July 2014, and was brought up to speed incrementally over a three-month period. By October, it was operating as promised. “November 2014 was the biggest month in the history of the company, and we got through it with no backlog and very little overtime compared to previous years,” Paul says.

While many companies measure the success of their new systems by percentage increases in throughput or cartons handled per hour, the measure of success to the Eddins brothers is that they are getting orders out the door as they are received; orders are more accurate while they are spending less on overtime; and they have excess capacity while still growing at a healthy clip. “We’re paperless; we’re organized; we can get things out the door; and we don’t get bogged down,” says Paul. “We’ve never had that before.

System suppliers
System design and integration: enVista
WMS: HighJump
Shipping Software: Creative Logistics (InfoShip)
Conveyor and sortation: Hytrol
Mobile computing: Honeywell
Lift trucks: Crown Equipment, Nissan
Pallet racking and mezzanine: Elite Storage Solutions

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About the author
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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