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Warehouse & DC Management: Nature’s best deploys best of both worlds

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Voice-directed picking of eaches to totes in cooler area.

By Maida Napolitano, Contributing Editor
September 01, 2012

Warehouse management systems (WMS) and voice-directed solutions have independently changed the world of warehousing and distribution, driving up accuracy rates and increasing productivity. About a decade ago, providers of both technologies decided to forge a partnership, offering users a voice-integrated solution that combined the hands-free, eyes-free benefit of voice with the real-time processing and execution of a robust WMS.

Over the years, that partnership has grown stronger, with voice providers offering its WMS partners new and improved interface tools, reducing the time to implement voice-enabled flows in DC operations from weeks to mere days. “The latest interface solutions for voice create substantially more flexibility and speed to implement new applications,” says Mike Miller, voice provider Vocollect’s senior director of consulting services. As many as five applications can be up and running within a few weeks. We want people to be able to add voice to other areas of the warehouse and increase the speed by which they are able to do that.” 

In fact, a direct interface with voice is now part of the base offerings of many Tier 1 WMS providers. “The addition of voice-enabled workflows has afforded users the flexibility to run their operations via voice, RF, or a combination thereof,” adds Adam Klein, product director for WMS provider Manhattan Associates. “With roughly 50 successful joint implementations across multiple industries and geographies, customers ultimately benefit from industry best practice and lessons learned from these joint projects.” 

For Nature’s Best, a privately-held distributor of natural and organic products, this voice-WMS partnership was key to the transformation of its operation from a predominantly mechanized system with multiple conveyors to a voice-enabled, conventional system with nary a conveyor in sight.

It was a daunting task. “We are a family-valued organization in a big industry where customers demand on-time dispatch, fresh product, and perfect orders,” says Brian McCarthy, senior vice president of operations at Nature’s Best. “We basically threw out what we’ve been doing for the past 40 years and systematically reinvented our supply chain—while keeping it seamless to our customers.”

In the midst of tremendous growth, the company successfully expanded its mission—and passion—to bring to market health and wellness to its customers through the natural and organic movement. In the next few pages we’ll follow how Nature’s Best overhauled its operation, opened two DCs, and deployed voice-enabled WMS solutions to execute a more accurate and productive supply chain. 

Organic takes off
Headquartered in Brea, Calif., Nature’s Best distributes over 20,000 SKUs of certified organic, natural, and specialty products to independent retailer markets throughout the Western, Central, and Southern regions of the continental U.S., Hawaii, Alaska, and Asia. 

The operation consists of three unique temperature areas (ambient, cooler, and freezer) with both each-pick and case-pick zones. In 2005, it was tied together with a largely accounting-based ERP system that had limited warehouse management functionality. Using wearable voice equipment that communicated via middleware to this ERP-based WMS, pickers would pick product from static single racks onto a mezzanine conveyor system. Conveyors would then transport and sort product at the shipping dock, where more workers would again “touch” the product by unloading cartons from the conveyor onto shipping pallets.

As the industry matured and the push for “natural and organic” became more mainstream, competition grew, interest in the product grew, and the company’s SKU base also grew.

“Every time we had to expand, the conveyor system just became too inflexible and capitalization for new mechanization was very expensive,” says McCarthy. It was at that point that he and the Nature’s Best logistics team knew they needed to explore more effective solutions. 

About the Author

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Maida Napolitano
Contributing Editor

Maida Napolitano has worked as a Senior Engineer for various consulting companies specializing in supply chain, logistics, and physical distribution since 1990. She’s is the principal author for the following publications: Using Modeling to Solve Warehousing Problems (WERC); Making the Move to Cross Docking (WERC); The Time, Space & Cost Guide to Better Warehouse Design (Distribution Group); and Pick This! A Compendium of Piece-Pick Process Alternatives (WERC). She has worked for clients in the food, health care, retail, chemical, manufacturing and cosmetics industries, primarily in the field of facility layout and planning, simulation, ergonomics, and statistic analysis. She holds BS and MS degrees in Industrial Engineering from the University of the Philippines and the New Jersey Institute of Technology, respectively. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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