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Optimizing the Last 100 Feet

By: Christian Dow, Contributor

Using advanced tools, your fulfillment operations can be both efficient and sustainable.

All distribution centers are working toward more efficient—and more sustainable—operations, for many reasons. With the historic labor shortage continuing, DCs need to operate with fewer employees wherever possible. Automation that might have seemed out of budgetary reach is now justifiable, so DC managers are deploying it more often than in years past. On the sustainability front, companies have both corporate mandates to reduce their corporate impact, and demand from their customer base to do right by the planet.

One of the best areas of a distribution center to target for both improved efficiencies and sustainability is the final 100 feet of fulfillment operations. This is the area where scanning, labeling, application and manifesting takes place, and when you add SLAM solutions to your operations, you up your efficiency while also reducing your environmental impact. It’s a double win for overall operating goals.

These opportunities present themselves in a variety of ways. They might reduce dunnage, for instance, which keeps packaging materials out of the waste stream. Or the equipment can improve shipping accuracy, which prevents returns, both costly to the bottom line and to the environment. With the right equipment, there are a wide variety of options within that final 100 feet to make a difference.

Printing Gains

Another product that can deliver sustainability and efficiency in the final 100 feet is ultrasonic banding in ecommerce operations. Image courtesy of Felins.

One of the areas of opportunity within the final 100 feet of fulfillment is printing. Rick Fox, president of FOX IV Technologies, said that his company has developed a product that automatically prints and applies shipping labels and the packing slip on one label. “It combines a process that most people do in two steps,” he said.

This serves two purposes. For one, it eliminates a step of the process, cutting down on the labor required and the equipment. It also ensures that the shipping label and packing slip match, which can drastically reduce mis-shipments and returns. This pays off by cutting down on transportation costs and the use of fossil fuels. “If you look at a standard fulfillment line, you put the packing slip in, close the box and then add the shipping label,” said Fox. “Sometimes that results in a mismatch.”

Another feature of the equipment is that utilizes a smaller footprint for the packing list than the traditional 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet and repurposes about 60% of the label liner, thus making an impact on the amount of paper required while reducing waste. “We use what was the label liner to make the packing slip,” Fox explained, “so we’re taking something you usually throw out and repurposing it.”

The company has been making labeling equipment for years, said Fox, and when it saw the opportunity for improvement, it took it. While the solution is ideal for DCs with a high level of automation in place, it might not be a perfect fit for more manual operations, he admits. “If you’re only doing 10 to 40 boxes an hour, it won’t justify the investment,” Fox said. “But if you’re high volume, this is a great solution.”

Customers of the product tell Fox they like the fact that they’re taking paper out of the fulfillment stream, as well as finding a solution that cuts down on the need for labor. “It’s sustainable and delivers savings,” he said.

Banding options

FOX IV Technologies has developed a product that automatically prints and applies shipping labels and the packing slip on one label. Image courtesy of Fox IV Technologies.

Another product that can deliver sustainability and efficiency in the final 100 feet is ultrasonic banding in ecommerce operations. Packaging comes in many forms and flavors here, and Felins has developed a more sustainable process for outgoing packaging. “With ecommerce fulfillment, you’re often going to have orders that involve multiple, unique sized products,” said Gina Barrieau, banding sales manager for ecommerce at Felins. “Our bands hold the products together for easy conveyance and to protect them during shipment.”

This ups the efficiency and sustainability in a few different ways. Rather than sending three different products in three different packages with multiple shipping labels, for instance, you can consolidate them together and print the license plate labels directly onto the band. Then the orders are integrated with right-sized packaging, eliminating wasted materials.

Banding can also make a substantial dent in the amount of packaging materials required. “Our goal is to reduce packaging waste, and the bands secure products to either a corrugated insert or to each other, which keeps them from clashing or moving inside the box without the need for additional void fill,” Barrieau said.

Similar to Fox’s printing and labeling equipment, the banding process works best in high-volume operations. “Banding unitizes the orders so that they keep their shape as they move down conveyors and through the entire scanning and packaging process,” Barrieau explained. “Without a band, those products might shift as they travel and cause machine jams and downtime.”

Barrieau points out that the banding process contributes to faster, more efficient operations and more satisfied customers. “This is extremely important today,” she said. “We know that consumers are willing to change their shopping habits in order to improve the environment, and this helps deliver on that.”

Right-sized boxes

As with Felins and FOX IV Technologies, PSI Engineering is also focusing on reduced waste and increased efficiencies for its fulfillment customers. Stephen Pickfield, CEO at the company, said that “customers want to work with companies that provide good corporate responsibility and sustainability.”

Those same customers also want their packages to show up on time and personalized “like a present,” said Pickfield. To that end, PSI has developed a document inserter that is print-on-demand, delivering personalized messages to the order. The company also has a solution that provides right-sized packaging, eliminating waste. Combined, the products deliver exactly what consumers are after.

“When you provide right-sized boxes, it eliminates dunnage, reduces shipping costs and reduces the amount of carbon footprint,” he explained. “As products go through the last 100 feet, the machine folds the box into the correct size for what is being ships. It adds a lid, glues it shut and sends it out. There’s no packaging added to the box.”

If the box requires an insert before being sealed up, PSI’s friction feeders add in the pre-printed materials, gift cards or discount cards. “It matches up to the order profile,” said Pickfield. “When it’s all integrated together, customers have a line of friction feeders along the conveyor system along with the right-sizing equipment, and they have a complete solution.”

Going forward, the ecommerce world will only become more demanding of efficiency and sustainability. SLAM equipment delivers exactly that, making the final 100 feet an area of improvement and opportunity. WMHS

MHI’s SLAM Industry Group provides education and thought leadership for “the last 100 feet” of warehouse and distribution operations. The group is made up of the companies that make the solutions and technologies that go into ecommerce fulfillment processes. You can learn more at www.mhi.org/slam

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