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A whole new dimension

One day workers were fumbling with tape measures; the next they were watching wide eyed as incoming cartons whizzed through high-tech scanners. How cubing equipment changed life at Ditan Distribution.

By John R. Johnson

Matt Scanlan’s operation has an image to uphold, and, frankly, there’s no room for rulers and yardsticks in the picture. Scanlan is chief operating officer at Ditan Distribution, a third-party logistics provider that specializes in distributing time-sensitive products like videogames to retail stores. It’s not some penny-ante regional outfit. With six distribution centers in North America, Sayreville, N.J.-based Ditan ships just over one-third of the nation’s videogames to mega-retailers like Wal-Mart and Target each year.

In the past, when he conducted site tours for prospective customers, Scanlan would show off the facility’s sophisticated in-line weighing systems and talk a lot about its failsafe quality control procedures. What he didn’t show them was the back room where associates were busily gathering product dimensions with a tape measure and manually entering the data into a computer. “Our customers expect us to have sophisticated processes in place,” says Scanlan. “We provide a world-class service and they expect us to have integrity in our processes. You can’t bring in a Fortune 500 company and tell them we’re measuring their boxes with a ruler.”

Today that’s no longer a problem. Scanlan now can proudly show off Ditan’s state-of-the-art dimensioning technology to visitors. Early this year, the company installed cubing equipment at three of its DCs. The same equipment will be up and running at the other three centers sometime next spring.

What is cubing equipment? Also known as dimensioning equipment, cubing machines use sophisticated sensors to collect dimension data electronically.

Available both as stand-alone models or as devices installed in a conveyor system, cubing systems instantly calculate the length, width, height and weight of items ranging from books and eyebrow pencils to the largest pallets and crates. The data then can be transferred to a real-time host system or a warehouse management system (WMS) that manages the flow of goods within the distribution center.

Rapid receipt

Cubing systems do much more than solve their customers’ image problems, however. They save a lot of money as well. By eliminating both the miscalculations that inevitably result from manual measurements and keystroke errors, they cut the risk of costly compliance charge-backs and even lost business. The equipment also saves users money on shipping costs and cardboard, since cartons are packed more efficiently.

Then there are the time savings. Almost to a one, users report that collecting dimensions electronically speeds up processing time on the receiving end. That’s been a big plus for Ditan Distribution, which often has only three or four hours to break down an inbound shipment of, say, Grand Theft Auto into as many as 10,000 separate outbound orders. Scanlan estimates that installation of cubing equipment (in this case, Cubiscan units from Quantronix) has sped up Ditan’s receiving process by 40 percent.

The availability of complete and accurate cube and weight information for each incoming product also takes storage decisions out of the realm of trial and error. Using the dimension information, a WMS can automatically decide where to put away items in the facility, explains Randy Neilson, director of sales and marketing for Quantronix, which markets several cubing products under the Cubiscan brand. “In order to determine optimal storage locations and to move items into storage and then out of the distribution center, the WMS uses cube information to make more efficient use of the real estate in the facility.”

Weighty matters

Though it might not be the first thing you think of, cubing equipment can also bring quality control benefits. Since it installed the cubing equipment, Ditan, for example, has already found that fewer quality checks are needed on the outbound side. Today, exact product weights are captured when items first enter the DC. As the products move past an inline weigh station, they are kicked off only when a weight variation is detected. “Our quality control process is better because our weights going in are much more accurate—thus [the percentage of] boxes getting diverted on our QC line because of weight imbalances has dropped significantly,” Scanlan reports. “It saves us an incredible amount of time in our QC process because far fewer boxes are diverted.”

Not only that, but the cubing system functions as a sort of double-check mechanism as well. The inline quality scale isn’t infallible; a carton of 500 videogames that’s short by one unit, for example, would most likely pass through the scale undetected. But the new cubing equipment has enabled Ditan to track picking errors that go unnoticed in the normal quality process. Because the systems are integrated, associates can now cross check the expected weight versus the actual weight, and track down the carton affected by the mispick.

“That’s a benefit that we didn’t anticipate when we started out with this,” says Scanlan. “If our inline scale fails to catch a picking error for some reason, we can identify the carton number in our system, go directly to the pallet and find the box and locate the picking error. We sure weren’t able to do that before.”

So what’s holding him back? The unique nature of the products he’s shipping. Obtaining cubing information for stackable products like picnic baskets and berry baskets is tricky business. “It can be very difficult to find a solution when you nest products during shipping,” says Bob Babel, vice president of engineering at Forte, a consulting/systems integration firm specializing in DC layout design and equipment integration. “When you ship a waste basket, not only can you stack two or three inside each other, but you can also fit something else inside that space as well, and use only one box. It’s a difficult issue to solve, and I’m not sure if there is a perfect solution.”

For a company like Longaberger, Babel says, the challenge will be to decide just how many algorithms are enough. Because a big order containing a large number of items (especially stackable items) could result in an almost infinite number of packaging configurations, the company will need to limit the number of calculations performed. “You need to decide if it makes sense to run through three iterations and maybe get to 60 percent [efficiency], or run it through 10 times to get an even higher [level of efficiency],” he says. “You need to consider what kind of processing time it takes to do that versus what you gain.”

But Beebe hasn’t given up hope. Despite the obstacles, he remains optimistic that he’ll soon be able to capitalize on cubing technology to boost customer service. If other online retailers’ experiences are any indication, he’s probably right. Cubing equipment’s success in reducing the number of half-full cartons—or multiple cartons shipped to a single address—has been well documented.

Cubing equipment also holds great potential for damage control. Online retailers are notorious for shipping, say, expensive wine glasses in the same box as a heavy casserole dish, leaving the unhappy recipient holding a box of shards. “That’s one place where you can gain some real advantages,” says Babel. “The software would actually control that process and prohibit that from happening. When you pay order pickers based on how much they push through the system, [they have little incentive to use] the care you would want somebody to exhibit in that situation. So from a quality standpoint, you can probably see an improvement in the type of cartons packed out, how the product is mixed.”

10 ways to boost DC performance with cubing/weighing systems

Cubing and weighing systems may be best known for their use in shipping operations. But they can boost performance in a variety of other areas as well.

By David Maloney

As anyone who’s ever had to gather weight and dimensional data on a pile of packages can attest, dimensioning systems (also known as cubing and weighing systems) can take a lot of the pain out of the process. Instead of wrestling with rulers or tape measures, all the user has to do is place the item or carton onto a cubing device (or in the case of a pallet, within range of a laser-based measuring system), and the rest happens automatically. In many cases, the process takes less than a minute.

Not only are these systems speedy; they’re also precise. The data they provide is accurate to within 1 inch on pallet dimensions; within 2/10 to 1/4 of an inch when measuring a carton in motion on a conveyor; and to within 1/1,000 of an inch when measuring a static carton.

“You can never come close to that with a tape measure,” says Randy Neilson, director of sales and marketing for Quantronix, which markets the CubiScan line of dimensioning devices. “Cubing systems can improve your overall accuracy and consistency.”

As for how this equipment can be used in DC operations, there are a lot of possibilities—more than you might imagine. Although they’re perhaps best known for their role in package rating and shipping operations, that’s just part of the story. When integrated with other systems—warehouse management systems, transportation management systems, and the like—today’s high-speed cubing and weighing systems can boost DC performance in a variety of other ways. What follows is a brief look at 10 areas of an operation where good dimensional data can come into play.

1. Facility design. When a company starts planning for a new facility, one of the first things the designer will want is a rundown on the products that will be stored there: How large are they? How much do they weigh? Will they be stored individually or on pallets? The answers will dictate everything from the design of the facility’s picking and packing areas to the type of storage that will be used in the facility.

2. Storage. Good dimensional data can help DCs make the most of their storage space. Once stock-keeping units (SKUs) have been weighed and measured, their profiles can be uploaded to a warehouse management system (WMS) for use determining the optimal storage location for each item—where in the building it should go and whether it should be stored in flow racks, shelving, or another storage medium. Not only does that help optimize storage space, but it also ensures that the SKUs will actually fit in their assigned spaces.

If the SKUs are to be placed in automated storage systems, such as automated storage and retrieval systems, carousels, vertical lift modules, or robotic storage systems, the dimensional data can help assure items are stored as densely as possible.

3. Slotting Dimensional data can help streamline the slotting process. Once the SKUs’ dimensions have been captured, they’re imported into special slotting software (typically from a WMS), which uses that information—in conjunction with data on order characteristics like pick frequency—to determine how to arrange products within the pick zones to optimize order fulfillment.

4. Picking. In operations where workers pick directly into shipping cartons, dimensional data can be key to preventing carton selection errors. All too often, pickers are left to make their best guesses as to what size carton to use, but that can prove costly. If the box is too big, the company ends up paying to ship air. If the box is too small, the packer has to remove the items and repack them, which can slow throughput. Dimensional data can help ensure the right size carton is used.

On top of that, the data can be helpful in determining where individual items should go in a carton and the order in which they should be picked to ensure everything fits neatly inside the box without crushing the items on the bottom. In addition, accurate weight information on SKUs can promote good ergonomic practices by ensuring that order cartons weigh no more than 40 pounds.

5. Verification. Once an SKU’s weight has been captured and uploaded to the WMS, the information can be used to verify picking. As each order is received, the WMS calculates how much it should weigh, based on the weight of the carton itself plus each of the items it contains. After the order has been assembled, the carton is weighed—often via an in-line scale on a conveyor system. If the actual weight differs from the expected weight, the carton can be set aside for further examination. Automated verification can cut down on the need for manual order inspections, resulting in substantial savings in time and labor.

6. Packing. Dimensional data can go a long way toward helping companies optimize their packaging. Shipping items in oversized cartons stuffed with filler can lead to enormous waste and inefficiency—and it happens a lot more often than you might think. “Most companies are shipping cartons that are 40 to 60 percent too large. Shipping packages that are too large is expensive,” says Hanko Kiessner, CEO of Packsize, a supplier of automated packaging systems.

Good dimensional data opens the door to a number of solutions, including the use of custom cartons. Packsize, for example, offers systems that use dimensional information to build a custom carton in about 30 seconds. That might sound expensive, but Kiessner says custom cartons actually save shippers money. He reports that with Packsize’s automated systems, customers typically save 3 to 8 percent on their shipping charges, in addition to cutting their corrugated costs by 20 percent and reducing their use of fill materials by 80 to 100 percent.

Dimensional data can also help with packaging optimization in operations that use standard-sized cartons. For example, the data can be used in computer-aided carton selection as well as for decisions about the optimal amount of void fill and other packing materials to use.

7. Pallet building. Dimensional data can be quite useful when it comes to building stable pallets. Once the data has been entered into the WMS, the system can use it to determine how items should be stacked on the pallet (typically with larger and heavier items on the bottom) to ensure load stability.

8. Load building. Not only can dimensional and weight data help with building pallets, it can help with building loads for trailers and other conveyances. Whether an operation is shipping full pallets, cases, irregularly shaped products, or a mix of all of the above, it can feed the data into shipping, warehousing, or load building software, which then determines how to load the truck to make the best use of space while staying within weight limits.

9. Shipping. The advent of “dimensional weight” or “dim weight” billing has changed the economics of parcel shipping, but good dimensional data can help shippers avoid costly mistakes. Under the carriers’ dim weight rules, a shipper tendering a large, low-density package must determine both the package’s actual weight and its dimensional weight (which takes into account the package’s length, width, and height). If the dimensional weight exceeds the actual weight, that becomes the basis for the freight charge. By gathering precise dimensional data on their packages, shippers can ensure they’re rating their parcels correctly and avoid chargebacks by carriers.

But it’s not just about avoiding chargebacks. Good dimensional data also allows shippers to estimate carrier charges for rate shopping purposes.

10. Customer service. Good service includes providing customers with good data. By passing along dimensional data on your products, you give customers the opportunity to use that information to streamline their own operations. Plus, if you charge for shipping, you can boost your credibility with customers by including the relevant dimensional and weight data on invoices. That way, they can be assured they’re being charged appropriately for freight.

Goodbye, tape measures

And so long, calculators. At Home Depot Supply’s DCs, a sophisticated “dimensioning” system has brought storage operations into the 21st century.

By David Maloney

It used to be that landing a job at one of Home Depot Supply’s DCs required more than a strong back … you also needed strong math skills. Every time a truck rolled up with a load of janitorial supplies, appliances or power tools, it was up to the workers to sit down and figure out the best way to fit all those various-sized cartons into the facility’s storage racks. It was the same story when it came to arranging cartons on pallets or loading trucks with cases of cleaning supplies or light bulbs for delivery to job sites across the country.

A division of the well-known Home Depot retail chain, Home Depot Supply stocks and delivers supplies and tools for use on job sites as well as cleaning and janitorial supplies for maintenance businesses (but not for the company’s retail stores). The items stocked in its 20 DCs run the full gamut of sizes and handling characteristics: hand tools, floor mats, power tools, stepladders, light bulbs, window coverings, appliances, exhaust fans, and water heaters, to name a few. Needless to say, figuring out the best way to store and ship those diverse items represented something of a challenge.

But today that’s all changed. Last August, Home Depot Supply installed a state-of-the-art dimensioning system at its newly opened Philadelphia DC, making all the measuring and calculating a thing of the past. With the new system—a CubiScan unit made by Farmington, Utah-based Quantronix—workers no longer need tape measures to figure out how many cartons of spray paint or pallets of power tools will fit in a particular rack. A quick trip to the CubiScan tells them in seconds exactly how much space each item, carton or pallet will occupy and how much it weighs.

Dimensioning systems like the CubiScan use sophisticated sensors to collect size and weight data electronically, instantly calculating an item’s length, width, height and weight. The data then can be sent to a real-time host system or, as in Home Depot Supply’s case, to a warehouse management system (WMS) to help manage the flow of goods within the distribution center and automate the decision-making process.

As soon as the CubiScan was installed at Home Depot Supply’s Philadelphia DC, events unfolded quickly. Associates got the data-collection process under way, running each of the 15,000 stock-keeping units (SKUs) stored on the premises through the system. Though time consuming, this was a one-time task. Once an item has been weighed and measured, it doesn’t need to be re-measured unless its packaging changes. Only SKUs arriving at the facility for the first time need to be “dimensioned” today.

The information provided by the CubiScan was then fed into the company’s WMS, which now uses the data to assign storage locations based on the items’ dimensions, weight and picking patterns. Automating that “slotting” process has allowed the DC to optimize storage—just as the company had hoped. “Our primary purpose for obtaining this system was to cube out our storage,” notes Chris Acosta, logistics coordinator for Home Depot Supply.

Though the Philadelphia site is the only one of Home Depot Supply’s DCs with a CubiScan, it hasn’t been the sole beneficiary. The division’s other 19 DCs have been able to take advantage of it too. Measurements stored in the WMS are available systemwide, which means any facility can use the data collected in Philadelphia to optimize its own storage areas.

More than storage

Dimensioning systems like the CubiScan are not new. They’ve been around since the mid 1980s, when the Department of Defense commissioned the first systems to optimize storage at its supply depots. What has changed over the years is that users have discovered new uses for the information dimensioning systems provide. They’re now using weight and measurement data for much more than just optimizing storage at a warehouse or DC. “Dimensional information can also be used for putaway, picking and shipping,” reports Clark Skeen, president of Quantronix.

For example, data obtained from a dimensioning system can be shared with retail sites to help optimize the store putaway process. If they’re provided with dimensional data on incoming shipments, store managers can figure out exactly how much shelf space a particular SKU will occupy and which items should be placed on lower shelves because of their weight.

Dimensional data can also prove invaluable in helping assure that the proper shipping charges are passed on to customers. Contrary to popular assumption, shipping charges aren’t always based on weight alone; an item’s dimensions can also affect its shipping cost. Unusually light items may “cube out” a truck before it reaches its maximum weight, and heavy items can cause a truck to “weigh out” before it’s filled. Shippers need both weights and dimensions to come up with accurate delivery costs.

As many users have discovered, dimensional data can also prove useful when building pallet loads. Heavier items can be picked first and placed on the bottom of a pallet, with lighter items above. Similarly, information on cartons’ dimensions can be used to provide workers with a stacking order that assures a tight, stable load. And when it comes time to load the trucks, that information can be used to determine the most efficient loading pattern.

In fact, Home Depot Supply is hoping to do just that. It’s currently in the process of replacing its homegrown WMS with a new software system. Once the switchover is complete, the division will use data provided by the CubiScan not just for storage, but to help build loads for shipping as well.

Cubin’ revolution

All it took to transform shipping operations at Clarins USA was an unimposing little machine that takes the guesswork out of the packaging process.

By Amanda Loudin

Eyebrow pencils, jars of exfoliating cream and skin cleanser, tubes of lipstick, vials of perfume, whatever the skin care or fragrance product, members of Barry DiGiacinto’s crew at Clarins USA have shipped it. And they’ve shipped a lot of it in recent years. Thanks to steadily increasing sales, volume at the company’s Orangeburg, N.Y., warehouse has reached 1.3 million cartons annually. But in the race to keep up with demand, the warehouse, like so many others around the country, has also shipped a lot of another, unprofitable commodity: air. Or more precisely, air and dunnage.

That’s a common problem. In a typical warehouse operation, pickers on the floor have to make on-the-spot decisions on what size carton to use, relying more on guesswork than scientific data. Invariably, they choose boxes that are too large and fill up the space with dunnage. Their companies end up overpaying for packaging. They also end up overpaying for freight.

So when Clarins USA began to automate its warehouse a few years back, DiGiacinto, who is the company’s director of applications development, brought up the packaging issue with the consultant hired to manage the project. That consultant, Bar Code Specialties of Huntington Beach, Calif., looked at the operation and quickly sized up the problem—an absence of accurate product dimensions. “No matter how sophisticated our software was,” DiGiacinto points out, “if the raw data about the product height, length and width was wrong, we couldn’t pack correctly.”

The solution proposed by Bar Code Specialties turned out to be somewhat revolutionary for the warehousing industry: dimensioning equipment. For Clarins’ operation, the consultant chose the CubiScan 100 unit from Quantronix. CubiScan units (there are eight models in all) gather dimensions and weights for both cubed and non-cuboidal objects and feed the data into a Windows-based software package. They come in both static and inline varieties, making them suitable for a variety of applications. “Many of the other automated solutions on the market were designed for ‘in-line’ dimensioning, which was not a fit for us,” DiGiacinto notes.

The CubiScan’s operation is nothing if not straightforward. The first time a new product enters the warehouse, the receiving system flags it as not having a weight or dimension on file, prompting the receiving clerk to run it over to the unit for processing. The clerk places the item on the machine and presses a button. Moments later the results are displayed, along with a prompt asking the user to accept or reject them. Once the user has accepted the displayed results, the software posts the data to a file on the company’s mainframe system. This file then feeds Clarins’ Item Master and pick/pack/ship systems.

With the new equipment in place, Clarins has been able to re-dimension its entire product line—about 3,500 SKUs. That may sound like a lot of effort until you consider the payoff. Clarins calculates that it’s been able to ship 21.2 percent more units of product in 13.7 percent fewer cartons for a net increase in pick/pack efficiency of 34.9 percent.

The long and short of it

Dimensioning equipment has been around for close to 15 years, but it’s only now gaining traction in the warehousing industry. “This is still a niche market,” admits Randy Neilson, director of sales and marketing for Farmington, Utah-based Quantronix. “But the equipment has come a long way and has become much more reliable than it was originally.”

As Clarins discovered, there are two basic types to choose from: static and in-line. Both depend on non-contact sensing tools to scan the physical dimensions of a package, such as lasers or of late, cameras. Which one is used largely depends on the application.

Static equipment, recommended for low-volume operations and applications that don’t use conveyor systems, can be moved throughout the DC when dimensioning is required in different areas. In-line dimensioning tools are better suited to operations that use conveyor systems and process a variety of cartons and irregular-shaped items. According to Don DeLash, vice president of sales and marketing at Accu-Sort Systems of Telford, Pa., in-line systems can measure carton length, width and height accurately to within a quarter of an inch. “If it’s measuring an irregular package, it will determine the smallest sized box that can be used,” he adds.

In-line systems are available today with laser and/or vision technology. “Right now, the lasers are more accurate and more advanced,” says DeLash. “But the cameras allow you to capture bar codes and written information in addition to dimensions. As the camera technology improves, it will eventually replace the laser systems.”

Pick/pack operations like Clarins USA’s typically favor static systems, while operations that require a lot of sorting usually opt for in-line systems. “The static systems can help with put-away decisions, to set up picking stations and to send the right cartons to picking and re-packing stations,” says Neilson. That eliminates the need for pickers to make judgment calls on the size and number of cartons needed.

Both types of dimensioning equipment integrate with warehouse management systems (WMS) or in-house software programs, and interfaces usually come standard with the equipment. Quantronix, for instance, provides an interface to a variety of systems, from WMS to slotting software. “This is a critical factor in effective usability,” says Neilson. “If you can’t interface, the data won’t be very useful.”

Happy returns

Part of the attraction of dimensioning equipment is its relatively quick return on investment. Though the payback period varies from application to application, early reports indicate that users are recouping their investment in a matter of months. “In warehouses, most often the savings come in shipping with small-parcel carriers,” says DeLash. “The carriers compare weight and volume and then charge the higher of the two. With accurate information, shippers don’t end up paying too much. In these applications, you can see an ROI in under a year.”

Using the smallest possible cartons also allows more efficient trailer loading, adding to the savings. “If you’re using the dimensioning equipment in conjunction with a good software system,” says Neilson, “you can manage your space more efficiently because you’re working with good data.”

But even in a market where companies are quickly becoming conditioned to expect a speedy ROI, Clarins feels it was able to pull off a coup. “Once we had factored in all the associated cost savings,” DiGiacinto reports, “we found that the ROI was just three months.”

Cube route to better slotting

Capturing precise dimensions of the SKUs in your DC can help make more of your storage space. And tape measures may not be up to the task.

By Peter Bradley

In DC operations across America, “guesstimates” may be going the way of the dodo. Over the last couple of years, operations managers have had to pay much closer attention to the size of their outgoing shipments.

The new emphasis on precision is a response to parcel carriers imposing and enforcing so-called “dimensional weight” rules. Under those rules, shipping charges, particularly for large, lowdensity packages, are more likely to be based on a parcel’s “dimensional” weight—a computation that includes its length, width, and height—than on its actual weight. Rate a package incorrectly, and you’re likely to be hit with charge-backs and penalties.

To avoid those fines, many shippers have turned to dimensioning, or “cubing,” systems. As a result, these devices, which use sensors or lasers to automatically gather dimensional and weight data, are fast becoming fixtures on shipping docks nationwide.

That same equipment, it turns out, can contribute to efficiency on the receiving dock as well. In fact, dimensioning systems were initially developed for the back end of the warehouse. Here, the systems are used to record the dimensions of individual products or cartons, as opposed to entire shipments, for use in storage, or “slotting,” assignments. Capturing accurate dimensions of all incoming products can help users make slotting decisions that lead to more efficient use of DC storage capacity, says Steve W. Trommer, vice president of Trommer & Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in facility design and material handling.

Of course, slotting decisions involve a lot more than determining the most efficient use of storage space. Factors such as how quickly SKUs turn and what products tend to ship together are all essential to good slotting decisions.

But accurate physical measures are nonetheless an important part of those decisions. And it’s not a static issue. Products change, and so, too, does product packaging. If the facility fails to capture those changes, DC slotting efficiency will diminish over time. Trommer says that’s something DC managers often overlook when considering possible causes for declining productivity. “When operations managers come to us, they may be looking at inventory quality, but they have never re-profiled their material handling system,” he says. “They may be using a six-foot space for a product that now comes in a smaller volume or in less than pallet loads.”

Quick returns

Trommer advocates that companies invest in dimensioning systems like the Cubiscan line of dimensioning systems from Quantronix or similar tools sold by Mettler Toledo, arguing that buyers can expect a quick return on their investment. That’s largely a result of labor savings, he says. To illustrate his point, Trommer cites slotting projects his company completed for two customers with similar SKU profiles. One, using a cubing tool, captured the cube and weight of 721 SKUs in three days. The other, with employees using tape measures, needed three weeks to capture the dimensions of 750 SKUs.

“A cubing device can save an enormous amount of time measuring a large number of items,” says Randy Nielsen, vice president of Quantronix. He says the company’s Cubiscan 100 model, for example, can capture the dimensions of more than 100 items an hour.

Trommer further argues that dimensioning systems are much more accurate than workers measuring by hand. Tape measure readings are subject to interpretation, he explains, and even slight variations in readings can have a big effect on productive slotting. “If you are off by a half inch,” he says, “that can have a large impact on the days of inventory in a flow module.”

Current cubing systems offer accuracy of two-tenths of an inch or better, manufacturers say. Some of the systems aimed at the distribution and warehousing markets have even closer tolerances, with some small devices offering accuracy down to one one-hundredth of an inch for products like books and CDs. Nielsen says that for warehousing and distribution applications, accuracy to one-tenth of an inch or better is essential.

The best systems for slotting

For applications like capturing data for slotting, static systems, as opposed to inmotion systems mounted over conveyors, appear to be the tool of choice. Manufacturers offer a range of those products, from devices aimed at capturing data from items as small as CDs up to pallet dimensioners.

The systems also have the advantage of being user friendly, Nielsen says. “Our static systems are user installable and user maintainable,” he says. “The customer can open the shipment, unpack the device, load software to its PC, plug it in, and away they go. You can be up and running within an hour.”

As for the procedural side of the dimensioning process, Trommer says the easiest way to capture dimensional data is to measure carton sizes as they arrive. But that leaves the question of what to do about slower movers that may not arrive during the time period set for a re-slotting project— say, a month or so.

Trommer says in those cases, the easiest thing to do is go out and capture data at the items’ current locations. Many of the cubing devices on the market today are designed to mount on portable carts for that reason. The mobile cubing systems run on battery power and can feed information as it is captured into a PC on the cart or, through a wireless connection, directly upload it to a warehouse management system or an enterprise resource planning system, he says.

Most modern WMS and ERP programs have built-in fields for capturing weight and dimensional data, he adds. “If you have a legacy system, you have more of an issue. You may have to go back to the programmers.”

Nielsen expands on that point: “The whole goal is to eliminate or, in some cases, minimize the work the IT department has to do to adjust or tweak the WMS. We’ve taken a look at a lot of WMS, TMS, slotting, and manifesting software and come up with software systems that are virtually plug and play. There will always be some exceptions, but very few.”

Standard equipment?

Right now, cubing systems are generally considered optional equipment for warehouses, but that might be about to change. The ability to capture and upload dimensional and weight data quickly may become an imperative for DC operations. “Industrial engineers are making it mandatory,” says Jerry Stoll, marketing manager for Mettler Toledo, a Switzerland-based manufacturer of scales and cubing equipment. “Companies are more stressed to save pennies.”

Stoll adds that precise dimensional information can prove useful for purposes other than slotting. For instance, accurate size and volume information also helps managers allocate operational costs to products based on the space they occupy in the DC.

But whatever the end use, one thing remains the same: The first step is taking the measure of the goods.

Trimming excess packaging could bring 10% payoff

Packaging may not be the first place logistics professionals look when searching for savings opportunities. Maybe it should.

By Peter Bradley

When Jack Ampuja gives a talk on packaging, he brings along a visual aid: a shipping carton he received that’s big enough to hold its contents several times over. His point is one familiar to most logistics professionals: Businesses ship a lot of air, driving up costs in a number of ways.

Ampuja, who is president and CEO of the consultancy Supply Chain Optimizers, says more often than not, the problem is simply lack of awareness. Companies typically select packaging based on marketing or other considerations without giving much thought to the supply chain implications, he says. As a result, they end up using more packaging than they need, creating enormous waste and unnecessary expense. He advocates with some passion that logistics professionals should become more involved in decisions about the packages their companies use to ship freight.

Package selection has taken on added importance in recent years as carriers—particularly parcel carriers—have begun imposing dimensional weight rules. Under those rules, the size of a package that’s over three cubic feet can matter more than the weight when it comes to determining the freight charge, especially if the shipment is not very dense. Shippers have learned the hard way—through chargebacks by carriers—that they’d better be as aware of package dimensions as they are of package weight.

But the dimensional weight issue is just part of the reason Ampuja urges logistics professionals to take more control of packaging. Cost enters into it too, he says. Packaging has significant effects on logistics costs well beyond the price of cartons and filler. For instance, it can have a big impact on transportation expenses. The more packages you can fit on a pallet, the more packages you can get in a truck, thereby reducing the number of trucks needed and the amount of fuel used—important issues from both a cost and a sustainability perspective.

Then there’s the issue of damage in transit. Randy Neilson, vice president of Quantronix, maker of the Cubiscan line of dimensioning equipment, adds that tighter packaging also means less shifting of goods within cartons, which reduces the potential for product damage.

There may even be regulatory compliance considerations. André Johnson, CEO of FreightScan, a company that makes cargo dimensioning products for carriers and some shippers, tells of customers who have used the dimensional data to back up their dimensional weight shipping costs as part of their companies’ Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. “Shippers have told us that their dim weight charges have been questioned by their compliance people,” he says. “They want to know how [shipping] knows the charges are accurate, since they are attesting that they are true. This is how they know.”

Some companies may even face business pressure to avoid wasteful packaging. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has launched a “packaging scorecard” for suppliers as part of an initiative to reduce packaging across its global supply chain 5 percent by 2013, based on a 2008 baseline. Shippers are rated on several criteria, among them the ratio of the product to the package, cube utilization, and transportation—all issues directly related to the size of the box. Late last year, Wal-Mart said it will roll out the packaging scorecard across most of its markets worldwide by the end of this year.

Wal-Mart expects the initiative to take some $10 billion in costs out of its supply chain, including transportation savings, with most of that going to its suppliers. That might sound like an ambitious goal, but Ampuja thinks the Wal-Mart targets should actually be relatively easy to achieve. “They should blow through that,” he says. “I think for most companies, there is at least a 10-percent opportunity.”

Nothing to lose, much to gain

Ampuja’s own experiences with packaging optimization attest to the savings potential. He cites one customer (a retailer whose identity he cannot disclose because of a confidentiality agreement) that realized big cost reductions just by revamping its lineup of shipping cartons. Based on the results of an analysis Supply Chain Optimizers conducted over its 16,000 SKUs, the retailer eliminated nine of its 16 box configurations, then added 12 more for a total of 19. Increasing the number of options might sound like a step in the wrong direction, but Ampuja says the move actually reduced the total number of cartons used by 5 percent. In addition, the client expects to see a 5-percent reduction in outbound shipping weight, a 7-percent reduction in dim weight, a 28-percent improvement in outbound-case cube utilization, a 21-percent reduction in corrugate, and a 41-percent reduction in filler material. The net result: a 5-percent reduction in overall freight costs.

That’s just one example of the kind of savings that can be achieved through packaging optimization. Ampuja cites another customer, a company that recycles used auto parts, that parlayed a minor packaging change into a rate reduction. By redesigning the packaging for a single part, it was able to take its freight class from 250 to 150, resulting in a 40-percent reduction in rates. Of course, it’s not enough to simply conduct a packaging optimization analysis. Once you have the results in hand, you then have to do something with them. One option is to incorporate tools into the warehouse management system that ensure the right carton is used for each shipment. For example, Nielson of Quantronix suggests programming the system to determine the right carton based on the dimensions of the shipment and then convey those instructions to workers on the line.

Team effort

Ampuja does not argue that packaging should be solely the responsibility of logistics; he acknowledges that there are plenty of marketing, antitheft, and other considerations that factor into packaging decisions. But he believes it is critical that logistics get involved in packaging decisions early on. “I would love companies to see it as a team exercise,” he says.

On the overall need for logistics professionals to give more thought to packaging, Ampuja borrows a quote from the famed bank robber Willy Sutton. Logistics managers should focus on packaging “because that’s where the money is,” he says.

Dimensioning and Weighing: Not Just For Parcel Carriers

small_10837605 Dimensioning and weighing systems have come a long way over the years. Before cubing systems were conceived, measuring products and boxes in a warehouse was an arduous task done manually with tape measures and rulers. Manually measuring products with tape measures and rulers is not only prone to inaccuracies, but also slows down performance in the warehouse. Utilizing dimensioning and weighing systems is key to enhancing performance in the warehouse and also throughout the supply chain.

The benefits

Dimensioning and weighing systems can provide numerous advantages such as maximizing storage space, increasing sustainability in the warehouse and on the road, and managing and decreasing freight costs.

These systems better facilitate warehouse managers in their load planning process, which is essential to maximize storage space and make slotting decisions easier. When receiving food products that need to be managed and stored in the warehouse, knowing the products’ dimensional information and weight information will help determine the best placement of inventory.

By verifying the correct weight it also confirms that the exact product(s) were placed into the shipping carton, says Sean O’Farrell, market development director of Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Dematic. “If the weight is over [or] under, then the shipping carton is sent to an audit area for resolution by a supervisor,” says O’Farrell.

Moreover, knowing the exact measurements of a product can help food and beverage warehouse managers save costs while maintaining a greener footprint. By identifying the size and weight of individual items in the warehouse, the warehouse staff can choose the best sized package. On the other hand, when a box is ready to be shipped, but isn’t completely filled, it’s essentially the same as shipping air and excess corrugate, which is costly and not environmentally friendly.

“When you load those boxes that aren’t full, that trailer or truck is then full of half filled boxes, so the truck is half filled,” says Randy Neilson, director of sales and marketing for Farmington, Utah-based Quantronix. “You end up sending more trailers and trucks than you need, therefore you’re going to pay more drivers [and] incur a lot more fuel costs because you may need fewer trucks if you have those boxes that are more efficiently filled with product.”

According to Neilson, many carriers including UPS are beginning to charge by size and weight. For instance, if there is a large, lightweight box, carriers will charge by the size of the box because it will take up a significant amount of space in their trucks. With fuel charges continuing to rise, optimizing the weight and space constraints is crucial.

Understanding dimensional weight

The DIM Factor (Dimensional Weight Factor) is a formula used to calculate the dimensional weight of a package. To calculate the dimensional weight in pounds for a domestic shipment in the U.S., multiply (in inches) the length, the width and the height and divide it by a dimensional weight conversion factor of 166. For exporting and importing international shipments, multiply (in inches) the length, the width and the height and divide it by 139.

The DIM weight charge was primarily for air freight in the past, but it’s now being applied to ground shipments as well. Although this is not a new trend, it still has a sizeable impact on the shipment of products.

“By getting the dimensions, you can charge your customer correctly and plan for it so you don’t get back-charged,” says Megan Bobel, segment marketing manager for Columbus, Ohio-based Mettler Toledo. “If there are any inaccuracies by the time it gets to the actual shipper, they definitely are checking the length, width and height that you put down compared to what it actually is, and if there’s a differentiation, they’ll back-charge customers.”

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Product Dimension and Weight Data – Who Needs Them?

Prod-Dimension
I don’t believe we have ever implemented a Warehouse Management System (WMS) without a lengthy discussion of product dimension and weight data for inventory. This post will include some of our common findings and outcomes of those lengthy discussions. But first, the answer to our title question is simple; you must capture the minimum product dimension and weight data necessary to support your processes. Or said another way; it depends (now, does that answer truly surprise you?). Let’s explore further.

Since Open Sky primarily implements Best-of-Breed WMS, such as RedPrairie (now JDA), there is generally an overwhelming amount of product data that can be captured with these systems today. For instance, we can capture the size and weight of the each, inner pack, case, pallet, etc. Clients are usually impressed at first by this functionality until they realize that it can be a lot of work to not only capture and record product dimension and weight data but also keep it up-to-date. And, as many of you know from experience, lots of products undergo revisions or substitutions making it likely that it won’t be a one-time activity for every SKU in inventory.

If your operation needs to do one or more of the following processes, then you have no choice but to capture and record accurate product dimension and weight data:

  • Complex and Volumetric Cartonization
  • Pre-Manifesting and Rate Shopping
  • Quality Control & Audit by Weight
  • Directed Put Away based on Cube, Length, Stacking Height, etc.
  • Trailer/Load Building
  • Automatic selection of Shipping Carton

Now, HOW will you capture and record it? Here are a few suggestions:
A little obvious maybe, but the best practice is to have your suppliers or manufacturing/engineering feed you this information in advance before you ever receive the product into your warehouse. You’ll want to validate the information to make sure it is accurate and can be trusted. Keep in mind that some sources will do better than others at this so you might want to consider different sampling frequencies to test the accuracy based on source. Unfortunately, this best practice is also usually the exception, not the rule. Product dimension and weight data will generally be unknown until the first time a product physically arrives at your warehouse. In this case it is critical to have a process that flags that receipt as a “first time receipt.” You may also need to consider a re-flagging process for each time a new supplier is used for the item, a new purchase order was issued, or even for after some period of time has passed since the last time the item was received and verified. We simply cannot stress enough how important this flagging process will be to operations. We know of many times when flagging was agreed upon during the design and conference room pilot and in practice never got fully implemented. Those companies will always struggle with issues related to unknown or inaccurate product dimension and weight data.

If you are not able to get the product dimension and weight data in advance (and even if you do, you’ll still need to verify it), then you’ll want to capture and record this data inside the warehouse. It’s commonly done one of the following ways:

  • The GOOD method is to implement a simple, manual process where the receiving dock is equipped with a tape measure and an accurate scale. This method works but it is very time consuming and mistakes can happen when reading the measurements or weight on the scale or keying in the product dimension and weight to the WMS or ERP.
  • The BETTER method is to invest in a more automated data capture device such as a Cubiscan which “magically” displays all the product dimensions and weight data very quickly and accurately. This information is then manually keyed into the WMS or ERP.
  • The BEST method is to have that same Cubiscan integrated to the WMS or ERP so that the data entry portion is done without human intervention. With this method the capture and update takes only seconds and there is simply no excuse to not have very accurate product dimension and weight data in your systems.

We have seen these Cubiscan devices mounted on movable carts, as well as units big enough to measure a small car. There should be a solution to fit your inventory profile, as well as the physical constraints of your warehouse.

We hope this helps you better plan for how your organization will capture the product dimension and weight data needed to support your operations. Remember, the key is having a process that ensures that all necessary data has been captured before it is needed – and reliable tools and technology that make the verification / capture of that data as quick and painless as possible. Don’t forget that items do change and product dimension and weight data are often not static, so this will most likely be an on-going need.

Do you have some other ideas or experiences with capturing product dimension and weight? Send us an email about it.

Sizing up your Shipments

Can shippers who determine for themselves the weight and dimensions of every shipment or load they tender save on freight charges? The short answer is maybe. A lot depends on the accuracy of the information that is gathered and how it is applied.

Traditionally, dimensioning systems have been used for various applications in the warehouse. For example, incoming products are routinely measured as they are received. Knowing how big a product is and how much it weighs allows for better utilization of storage space. It also helps with the slotting of products in picking areas. Managers need accurate dimensional data to make sure they’ve allocated enough room for a product to assure adequate stock—but not so much that it increases the distance between products within the pick zones.

But it also turns out that the same dimensional information collected for storing and slotting can be used in shipping applications. The experiences of two companies, Monoprice and Interline Brands, are testament to that.

NO MORE ‘FAT FINGER’ ERRORS
Monoprice is a direct-to-consumer retailer of electronic products. Its distribution center in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., utilizes a CubiScan 125 dimensioning system manufactured by Quantronix Corp.

The CubiScan uses lasers to measure the length, width, and height of each product when it is first introduced into the facility. It also weighs each item as it is measured.

Before the arrival of the CubiScan, this process was painstakingly performed by hand, which took considerable effort with some 4,500 stock-keeping units (SKUs) typically on hand (and another 10,000 SKUs in the database).

“In the past, we often had errors, as a worker would sometimes ‘fat finger’ a manual entry,” says Erik Entrikin, operations manager for Monoprice. “Now, once we receive a container from overseas, we dimension and weigh every new SKU with the CubiScan to accurately plot our slotting.”

In addition to using the data for storing and slotting, Monoprice uses the information on each SKU to determine the best packaging for the item once an order is received. “We use the cubing information to find out what size of box or envelope will fit the product best,” says Entrikin.

Beyond that, Monoprice has found that it can use the weight and dimensional data it has already collected to achieve freight savings. In addition to using parcel and less-than-truckload (LTL) services, the retailer ships full truckloads from the Rancho Cucamonga DC. When workers go to load trucks, the weight and dimension information is used to determine how to best fill the truck.

That’s good business practice, says Chuck Clowdis, managing director for transportation advisory and consulting services at IHS Global Insight, an industry research and consulting firm. “You don’t want to leave holes in trailers,” he says. “The idea is to fill the trailer. The higher and tighter you can stack a trailer, the better. Tighter stacking can also reduce product damage.”

“Dimensioning helps you to better understand your freight,” adds David Ross, managing director and transportation analyst for investment firm Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. “Understanding your dimensions allows you to redesign packaging to save money. You can also build pallets in a different way to save space in the truck.”

A BETTER CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
Another company that’s using cubing data for a variety of applications is Interline Brands, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based supplier of maintenance, repair, and operations products. These products, which include parts for janitorial and plumbing needs, HVAC equipment, and industrial tools, vary greatly in weight and size. Items are shipped from 54 warehouses in North America. Four large replenishment centers feed the warehouses, and six CubiScans perform dimensioning within the system.

“We capture sizes at receiving and use the information [in many different ways],” says Scott Lowther, Interline’s vendor compliance manager. These include slotting within the warehouses and determining other space needs in both new and existing facilities.

The dimensional data are also used for shipping. Although it relies on parcel and LTL service for shipments to customers, Interline has its own fleet of trucks to handle much of the hauling between its facilities.

“We want to ship as little air as possible, so filling the trucks to capacity is to our advantage and is most cost-effective,” says Lowther.

He adds that customers also want to know what their freight charges will be at the time of order. Lowther says that Interline will be using the data it captures on its products to roll out a new program in the first quarter of 2013 that will provide accurate freight charges, enhancing the overall customer experience.

“CubiScan provides very effective data, and utilizing it for multiple means as we are is essential for our business,” he says.

WORKING WITH CARRIERS
As valuable as weight and dimensional data may be for internal shipping purposes, the story doesn’t end there. Having accurate numbers can also prove helpful when shippers go to deal with for-hire LTL and parcel carriers.

One example would be a case involving a dispute over freight charges. “If there is a challenge on a shipping charge, we have full documentation on that product’s weight and dimensions,” says Entrikin of Monoprice. Such challenges, he adds, used to be more common when the company relied on manual measurements, but rarely occur now because the information supplied to carriers is much more accurate.

And then there’s the matter of building better relations with carriers. Although parcel carriers tend to be more exacting when it comes to a package’s weight and dimensions, LTL carriers often rely on data provided by the shipper to determine freight charges. That’s largely a matter of expedience: Most truckers are focused on keeping freight moving through the network and don’t want to slow down processes to weigh and measure freight.

“Carriers don’t have the time to dimension every load,” says Clowdis of IHS Global Insight. “But if they see something that looks funky, they weigh and inspect it.”

That’s where dimensioning data comes in. “If you have accurate info on your products, it just makes it easier for the carrier,” explains Michael Regan of TranzAct Technologies.

Ross of Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. adds that making life easier for the carrier can have a long-term payoff. “If the shipper has better info on its products, it may be able to get a better price and build a better relationship with the carrier,” he says.

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CubiScan 100

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