Coming in Out of the Cold
Order pickers warm to a cold chain warehouse redesign that heats up efficiency by 45 percent.
It's one thing to operate a cold chain warehouse that's inefficient, but when growth raises safety concerns as well, then it's time to make changes. That was the situation Life Technologies Corporation's distribution center in Fredericksburg, Md., faced in 2012 before Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. acquired it in early 2014. Today, as part of Thermo Fisher's Life Science Solutions business, the brand provides temperature-regulated bioproducts to research laboratories nationwide.
Sharing aisles with pushcarts, forklift trucks, and ladders, about 35 pickers filled orders for products stored in the warehouse's refrigerator and freezer sections. It was a busy, labor-intensive environment until out-of-the-box thinking—literally—during a facility redesign brought in Werres Corporation, a local materials handling integrator and distributor, to implement a gravity-fed racking system installed behind deli doors.
What was then Life Technologies was formed as the result of a merger between Bethesda Research Laboratories and Grand Island Biological Company, which was founded in 1962 to make serum harvested from horses raised on company land. After a series of acquisitions, the company is now a product brand of Thermo Fisher Scientific of Waltham, Mass. The Grand Island site in western New Yorkstill maintains a small cold chain warehouse, while a third facility operates in Carlsbad, Calif.
As part of Thermo Fisher's Life Science Solutionsbusiness, the brand provides products—ranging from antibodies to cloning kits—used in cancer and stem cell research, drug discovery and development, and synthetic biology. Because most are temperature sensitive, proper cold chain management is required as the products move through the supply chain. Adverse conditions during storage and transport could compromise quality and cost money.
In 2012, the company divided its Fredericksburg cold chain warehouse into a 13,000-square-foot +4-degree cold box and a 9,000-square-foot -20-degree freezer. Each unit had wide aisles between pallet racks of products. Pickers wearing cold suits and gloves filled 3,400 orders daily. With pallets containing from three to 10 boxes with different SKUs, it took the pickers some time to find the right products for each order.
"As our order volume grew, and more people and equipment moved through each unit, we became concerned about safety," says Thomas Brown, the systems engineer who spearheaded the improvements.
Anticipating the Thermo Fisher acquisition and resulting growth, Brown worked with the distribution management team to find the best solution for a warehouse redesign that incorporated the packing area as well. Team members examined different layouts and configurations before selecting an option that increased efficiency while reducing the number of pickers needed.
With his more than 35 years of experience in the field, Brown knew which vendors could provide the needed services. After considering several proposals, he selected Werres, a UNEX Manufacturing Inc. distributor that had been providing products and services to the facility for years. UNEX, a Lakewood Township, N.J., company, develops order picking and pallet rack carton flow solutions for industrial applications.
"We were also looking for a turnkey solution that included truck conveyors and racking, and we especially wanted to work with a local business," Brown recalls.
Thermo Fisher and Werres jointly implemented the solution, which relocated the packing space while moving pickers out of the cold storage unit and into the ambient temperature environment in front of two levels of 94 deli doors. The first level stores refrigerated products on gravity-fed racks behind glass deli doors, similar to those used in supermarkets. A new second-level mezzanine, built directly above the cold box picking area, provides access to a similar setup for freezer cases. Pickers climb stairs to reach the second level.
The biggest challenge was doing the installation while Thermo Fisher continued to fill orders daily.
"It was a logistically challenging project for all of us," notes Bill Costa, vice president of sales for Werres. "For example, the adjoining space that would be reconfigured for the new packing area had to be ready before we could install the packing conveyors for that area. Once we had them in place, and packers moved into that space, we could demolish the original packing area." That space is now used for ambient pallet rack storage.
After demolition was done and packing re-located, it was time to build the mezzanine, install conveyors, and add racking to the coolers and freezers while warehouse staff moved product behind false walls in the warehouse to accommodate construction.
Two Werres teams managed the new deli-door systems project while a third group created and installed a new conveyor solution that connected all locations—cold boxes on the floor level, freezer boxes on the upper level, and the new packing area adjoining the bi-level picking area. Conveyor installers often worked in the middle of the night so they wouldn't interfere with business during the day.
"The implementation schedule looked like a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle," Costa says.
Once Thermo Fisher cut doors through the wall dividing the cooler and freezer warehouses from the ambient temperature space, Werres built the mezzanine for the upper-level freezer. Next came the installation of UNEX pallet racking and shelving, with UNEX Span-Track Bed gravity flow racking behind the deli doors.
Today, pickers working in the ambient space pull products from the first-level cold box door and rack solution that measures 150 feet long by 25 feet high; the corresponding freezer unit is 100 feet by 25 feet. Werres installed 1,600 linear feet of UNEX Span-Track wheel bed that allows products to roll forward when the front product has been pulled out in a gravity-fed system. The typical cold case is configured with up to six levels of shelves installed at varying heights to accommodate a range of storage bin sizes.
Racks hold blue bins of different sizes that, in turn, store products with varying shapes and dimensions; product package sizes range from one-inch-high vials to 10-milliliter bottles to large boxes. Each bin can be sub-divided so it contains a range of sizes. This allows bins to hold several SKUs if necessary, and gives the company more pick faces behind each deli door. Because the system also allows racks to store any configuration of bin sizes, products can be shelved as needed to meet demand. Each case can hold 20 to 30 bins of SKUs.
A new spiral conveyor moves order picking bins from the first floor, where pickers place products from the cooler in color-coded order totes, to the mezzanine level above, where other pickers add frozen products to the totes. Totes with completed orders move by conveyor back down to the packing area on the ground level.
Pickers can fill about 65 percent of orders through the new deli-door system. They still do case or pallet bulk picking inside the cold units, which were reconfigured to create more storage capacity. With fewer people using less equipment, aisles could be narrower and fitted for wire-guided forklift trucks. Deli-door racks are replenished from the warehouse side, with workers using forklift trucks to load second-level freezer cases.
"It's the first time we've done this setup in a wholesale environment, with operators picking outside of the freezer," says Brian Neuwirth, vice president of sales and marketing for UNEX.
Picking Up the Benefits
It is an unusual solution, but the payoff is clear: Thermo Fisher's Fredericksburg distribution center reduced the number of pickers from 35 to eight, while increasing pick efficiency by 45 percent. Pickers were reassigned as forklift operators or transferred to packing stations. And, improved packing space design and more packers allowed the company to eliminate a third packing shift. The facility has since increased daily order fulfillment from 3,400 to a range of 3,600 to 3,800 orders, while continuing to work toward a zero-percent picking mistake rate.
The company also nets additional savings because fewer people move throughout the cooler and freezer. The more people, the warmer the space and the harder condensers are forced to work to maintain the correct temperature.
"We put more products into a smaller footprint that requires fewer pickers, and that's significant," Costa says.
All changes at the Fredericksburg facility were executed without impacting daily operations or forcing a product shift to other warehouses. "It took detailed planning and organization," says Brown. "But we didn't miss a single order."