Legend Valve Opens Fulfillment Spigot
When you promise 100% order fulfillment accuracy and best-in-class customer service, your company's integrity depends on how well you meet those expectations.
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Legend Valve, based in Auburn Hills, Michigan, provides high-qualityvalvesand fittings for the plumbing, industrial, commercial, and residential markets.
Waltham, Massachusetts-based 6 River Systems offers flexible, human-first, and innovative products that make warehouses faster and deliver immediate value. As part of global commerce company Shopify, 6 River Systems empowers operators and entrepreneurs to compete in multichannel commerce.
Legend Valve knows full well what this means. These core values are center stage for the plumbing wholesaler, and they served as foundational principles in a recently rolled out warehouse automation initiative.
"We differentiate ourselves by the way we serve our customers, all the way from how we process orders in the front office to the speed of fulfillment in the back office," says Larry Emmert, vice president of operations at Legend Valve, based in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
To keep this high bar of trust, Legend Valve turned to 6 River Systems (6RS), in Waltham, Massachusetts, to create a custom solution based on automating repetitive order management and fulfillment tasks. Collaborative mobile robots called Chucks helped Legend Valve increase pick rates with optimized pick paths and directed workflows. The results: significantly improved same-day shipping, reduced warehouse employee fatigue, and lower transportation costs.
Legend Valve, founded in 1988, maintains two fulfillment centers, one in Auburn Hills and another in Reno, Nevada.
The majority of the company's customers are in the plumbing wholesale market, primarily in the United States with some reach into Canada; a small part of its retail business comes from big-box stores. The company carries more than 10,000 SKUs of plumbing products, and prides itself on the way it serves customers end to end.
Legend Valve's service level is its differentiating competitive characteristic, according to Emmert. "Order fulfillment is Legend Valve's go-to strategy for how we service customers and how we reach the market," he says, adding that most products are shipped via ground transportation.
Fulfillment is such a vital piece of the company's business that it provides a cash-back guarantee to customers if it doesn't accurately meet its promised 100% fill rate. Legend Valve also guarantees that it will have products on its shelves and a 24-hour order-to-shipment turnaround time.
Even before the recent solution upgrades, the company's fill rate and 24-hour shipment targets consistently ran at 100%, and order accuracy was above 99%, Emmert says.
Still, some gaps needed attention.
For instance, Emmert says the company wanted to improve its shipping goal from 24 hours to same day for orders received before 5 p.m. It also wanted to increase volume as it grew, as well as its ability to handle more volume without adding resources. This intention was also coupled with an eye on neither adding nor reducing headcount while adding volume.
As these issues came more to the forefront, so did the issue of automation.
Although inbound order processing through the company's customer service group has been highly automated for about a decade, the fulfillment and warehouse management side, while efficient, was largely a manual process until 2020.
At the Michigan facility, "employees pushed heavy carts with heavy products across a 275,000-square-foot warehouse," recalls Emmert. "Despite the automation we did, we still had many manual parts in the middle of the order management process. We knew we had to improve those steps."
Building off the fundamental questions of how Legend Valve could improve service levels to customers and increase throughput with existing resources, the company began evaluating its warehouse automation in earnest in 2019.
Emmert and his team began reviewing complex picking and conveyor automation services, pick-to-light and goods-to-persons technology, and collaborative robot systems (cobots). Two things Emmert knew he wanted from any solution were a "reasonable time frame" for implementation and "to get the biggest bang for the buck."
While researching options, Emmert read an article mentioning 6RS, and that moved the entire conversation forward.
By January 2020, Legend Valve, 6RS, and another partner, Salt Lake City-based Packsize International, launched a custom-designed fulfillment process to enable Legend Valve to pick, pack, and ship orders more quickly and efficiently through the Michigan warehouse. Legend Valve also integrated this new order fulfillment process with its JD Edwards enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.
"This project took a very collaborative approach," says Fergal Glynn, vice president of marketing at 6RS.
From a 30,000-foot perspective, two important aspects of the solution look like this:
Packsize analyzes and efficiently cubes orders as they come in, with the goal of optimizing packaging. 6RS intelligently allocates orders to optimize workflows and pick paths with its collaborative Chucks robots. Legend Valve was operating 10 Chucks as of summer 2020.
"Packsize handles the right-size packaging," Glynn says. "6RS looks at it from the angle of what needs to be done in the building to fulfill the order before 5 p.m., and how the workers and the Chucks can navigate to particular locations. And, all of this is integrated with the ERP system."
On a drilled-down level, 6RS, which allowed for fast implementation with minimal physical changes to the warehouse, calculates and prioritizes picking routes, employee walking time, cobot/Chuck travel time across the warehouse and coordinates multi-location order picking in the warehouse between different pickers. The Chucks also carry all the picked products, eliminating the need for associates to push heavy carts around the warehouse.
Additionally, each Chuck has a monitor that displays product photos making it easier for warehouse associates to identify the products they pick, which, in turn, improves order fulfillment accuracy.
Chucks bring the warehouse associate down the correct aisle, stop in front of the right section, show a picture of the product, and identify the exact box or color-coded location. Associates, who have a Smart Gladiator scanner on their finger, scan the picked product, and the cobot verifies that the correct product was selected.
"With 10,000 products on Legend Valve's shelves, picking the right product is critical to supporting the strategy of 100% order accuracy," says Glynn.
The unit's onboard mobile printer and packaging materials also allow the warehouse associate to bag and label individual pieces as soon as they're picked, which reduces the number of touchpoints in getting the order out. Since customers are not required to order case-size quantities and can buy however many parts they need, this aspect of the solution is a valuable time-saver and improves overall packing efficiency, Emmert notes.
Reaping the Benefits
Legend Valve has already reported significant improvements since the January 2020 go-live date: Pick rates doubled after the automation was implemented, same-day shipping improved from 80% to 95%, and transportation costs, dunnage requirements, products damaged in transit, employee fatigue, and employee training time were reduced.
Also, in a year when the coronavirus pandemic and related lockdown forced companies to adjust their manufacturing, distribution, and logistics strategies, the new order fulfillment process allowed Legend Valve to more efficiently ride the wave as demand and order volume changed, Emmert says.
In the early phases of the lockdown, Legend Valve saw smaller orders that needed curbside delivery to specific individual plumbers or work sites. Customer business sites were closed, and packages were rerouted.
"The pandemic affected every state and every customer differently, but the majority of our customers stayed open because they were considered essential suppliers within the water infrastructure segment," Emmert says. "Initially, there was a deep decline in orders, but then it picked up as states reopened.
"As things reopened, we saw a lot of pent-up demand," he adds. "We were able to manage those swings in volume, both from an order processing perspective and on the floor in the warehouse, because of this implementation. The Chucks don't care if you have 10 small orders or one big order. It's the picking efficiency that matters most."
Going forward, Emmert says Legend Valve is evaluating other ways to improve order fulfillment process efficiency with 6RS and Packsize. It is also analyzing ways to improve and delineate warehouse zones and workflow within those zones.