Material World Goes High-Tech

American Mills weaves together an inventory management system to improve DC operations and speed its home textile products to store shelves.

One of the few textile companies still manufacturing in the United States is American Mills, a Griffin, Ga.-based manufacturer of decorative pillows, home linens, and other textile products.

The company currently manufactures approximately 98 percent of its decorative pillow seat cushion lines in Georgia. To remain competitive, however, American Mills has to outsource many other product lines offshore.

The company’s rich history dates back to 1936, when it began operations as the American Throwing Company. Since its inception, American Mills has focused on textile products, while altering its product line over time to meet consumers’ changing needs.

It’s common to find American Mills’ goods on store shelves around the country; it ships to 15 major retailers. It wasn’t until recently, however, that its 27,000-square-foot distribution center was able to process orders as quickly as the company wanted. Because most operations were performed manually, the 17-employee staff faced several challenges that slowed the order fulfillment process.

One challenge American Mills faced was losing track of inventory within the DC. The DC’s operations were completely manual until 1995, when it added a basic bar-coding system to help locate goods within the DC. While the equipment was an improvement over the manual process, it still didn’t get the company where it wanted to be.

“We had orders we couldn’t fill, or that took a long time to fill, because we couldn’t locate the goods,” recalls Larry Scott, senior vice president of finance and information systems. “We also had no form of cycle counting in place.”

American Mills determined that it needed to increase inventory count accuracy, reduce item overstocking, and minimize stockouts

Designing a New System

A second challenge involved the dual role of the company’s DC. Because American Mills operates its distribution center at its manufacturing site, the DC serves as a warehouse for raw materials, work-in-progress, and finished goods, with approximately 6,000 SKUs. The facility operates five and a half days per week, with one shift each day.

Customers are located around the country and overseas. Depending on the customer, American Mills aims to ship orders by the end of the day received, or by the next morning in most cases.

“For our catalog customers we ship the same day; for some, we even manufacture on the same day,” says Scott.

To improve DC operations and keep up with customer demands, it was clear the American Mills DC needed a new system. Scott led the charge to find the right technology partner that could help the company meet its needs.

“We wanted our technology vendor to have several important attributes, but the most critical was finding a company that could partner with us into the future,” he says. “We wanted to develop a long-term relationship with a vendor that could provide high-quality technology.”

American Mills considered four potential technology partners, eventually selecting data-capture solutions provider Barcoding Inc., based in Baltimore, Md.

“We met with each potential vendor, discussed the capabilities of their equipment, and conducted research,” says Scott. “Barcoding had a good reputation and could provide the long-term relationship we were looking for. We asked Barcoding to come up with a solution.”

First, the two companies designed a small installation of the equipment to test its viability for American Mills. “The test installation worked well, so we decided to move forward,” Scott says.

Next, Barcoding sent a team to scope out the American Mills facility and determine its needs.

“American Mills already had a legacy Warehouse Management System (WMS) in place,” explains Jay Steinmetz, president and CEO of Barcoding. “The company wanted to leverage that system to develop the most up-to-date system possible to cut turnaround time and improve inventory control.”

Orders at American Mills tend to be cyclical, so the new system had to fit those parameters. “We worked together designing the system, but relied heavily on Barcoding,” Scott adds.

After evaluating the distribution center’s layout and operations, Barcoding made its equipment recommendation to American Mills. The system includes a variety of hardware and software, including:

  • PSC Falcon 345 wireless terminals running Stay-Linked thin-client terminal emulation. The Stay-Linked software provides centralized wireless session/device configuration, monitoring, and control, along with secure end-to-end wireless data transmission between clients and the application host.
  • Session management software, developed by eBusiness Solution Pros, Tustin, Calif. The software provides enhanced, real-time support capabilities for wireless users.
  • An expansion of the existing Cisco wireless network to cover the entire facility.

“We built remote management screens into the system design so the support staff can view what’s happening on the user’s end at any time,” says Steinmetz. “The entire system is host-based, and eliminates the use of middleware or gateway hardware.”

Implementation and Results

It took only six weeks from Barcoding’s initial visit to American Mills to the go-live date. “Once American Mills decided the path it wanted to take, the process went quickly,” says Steinmetz. Implementation of the new system occurred in three steps.

“First, Barcoding laid out the system in the distribution center,” Scott says. “Second, it installed the hardware; third, the scanners and software. The entire installation took only a few days. We had already developed the scanner applications so we were able to go live quickly.”

The results have been all that American Mills had hoped for, according to Scott. “The system allows us to profitably plan and execute purchasing, manufacturing, and shipping,” he notes.

While new technology often makes users apprehensive, this has not been the case with the Barcoding system, Scott says. “The equipment is designed with ergonomics in mind, so it is comfortable and lightweight,” he notes. “It also has large displays, a feature the workers appreciate.”

With the new system in place, American Mills has been able to keep tighter control over its inventory. “We used thousands of yards of fabric in our manufacturing operations, and we’ve reduced that inventory substantially,” says Scott. In addition, Scott expects the system will help American Mills reduce labor costs.

24/7 Support

Barcoding initially stayed on-site to help get the new system off the ground, and is now available with an around-the-clock support system if American Mills needs assistance.

“We also created user-customized systems, so American Mills can download the technology manual and find answers to common questions as a first line of action,” says Steinmetz.

This installation is the first of two for American Mills—a second distribution center across town is next in line for the new equipment. “We also want to provide management with wireless devices in the future,” says Scott.

Other plans include the possibility of voice technology. “We’re testing phase two now,” says Steinmetz. “We want to design the system so it will be open to voice technology in the future, and we can add it seamlessly.”

Scott is pleased with the new equipment and software in place, and the relationship American Mills has established with Barcoding.

“Be diligent when you select a technology vendor for a project like this,” he advises. “The relationship will be more cost effective if you find a vendor that provides a strong level of support. For us, it was key to develop a relationship and a solution that would allow us to keep growing.”

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