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.