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.”