Robots and WMS: Living in a Materials World
"Order any sample by midnight (EST). Get everything in one box, shipped FedEx Priority Overnight. Always Free." That's the first message users see on Material Bank's website. It's the promise the next-generation material sampling platform has built its entire operation around and will remain a driving force as it scales.
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Material Bank is an architectural and design-focused material resource library where architects, interior designers, and design professionals can search materials from leading brands on a single platform and receive samples by 10:30 a.m. the next day.
Made4net's WarehouseExpert WMS solution and Locus Robotics' LocusBots robots.
Material Bank, a Sandow brand and the world's largest materials resource library in the architecture and design industry, aims to streamline the complex way architects, interior designers, and design professionals request and ship samples.
The brain child of Sandow's chairman and CEO Adam Sandow, Material Bank started to take shape in 2015.
Working closely with architects and designers through several of its brands, including Interior Design and Luxe Interiors + Design magazines, Sandow had developed a deep understanding of the daily pain points these professionals experienced. Removing friction from the sampling process formed the basis for Material Bank.
Typically, designers and architects pore over eight to 12 different manufacturers' websites and then order, piece by piece, samples of the tile, paint, wood, carpet, textiles, or any other material they may use in a commercial space. Then, they wait for the boxes to trickle in. It takes an average of two to 10 days for designers and architects to receive the samples they may show customers, and it costs manufacturers millions of dollars each year to fulfill these requests, notes Juan Lopez, executive vice president of engineering for Material Bank. Architects and designers frequently discard unneeded samples and manufacturers are often left without much return in terms of customer leads or future sales opportunities.
Getting Through Beta Mode
Material Bank set out to close this gap, and waded into the uncharted territory of bringing together both sides of the design community in a new and different way.
Executives prioritized the technology and logistics side of this business. A key to this overall plan was to build a focused network of solutions centered on logistics, warehouse management, and order fulfillment. This back end would support a dynamic e-commerce front end where users could rapidly obtain what they were looking for.
To achieve this, one of Material Bank's first steps was securing warehouse space. It deliberately searched for a facility in the same ZIP code as Memphis International Airport, FedEx's hub.
"We picked the property in Memphis for this reason: It has the latest possible FedEx pickup time in the country," says Lopez. "The trucks depart our warehouse well into the night and they drive directly into the FedEx pipeline."
As the company began building its user and manufacturer community, Sandow executives also explored technology solutions that would support its third-party logistics and e-commerce requirements and allow it to scale. A warehouse management system (WMS) was a fundamental part of the equation; so was automation in the form of robots—a challenge because not all robots are able to pick and hold the various materials, textures, and sizes stored on the shelves.
"Material Bank is doing something no one has attempted to do before: provide overnight delivery for as many samples as interior designers and architects need from a large set of manufacturers, in one place, for free," says Lopez. "Having a large number of samples from a large number of manufacturers makes the process complex.
"To be able to do this, we had to engineer systems all the way back to the warehouse, for the catalog, for the website, and for the sample attributes a designer and architect can search for," he adds.
Lopez, who started out coding as a software engineer, attended ProMat, a supply chain, manufacturing, and distribution trade show, to shop for solutions.
"To follow the user experience and warehouse execution, selecting the right WMS was critical," Lopez notes. "It had to be efficient. We had to be able to configure it easily. It had to be policy- driven—that was a top requirement. We didn't want to be blocked by systems that were too strict."
When Lopez discovered that Hackensack, New Jersey-based Made4net's WarehouseExpert WMS solution and Locus Robotics, the Wilmington, Massachusetts, provider of LocusBots robots, both used data queues to communicate between systems and to send and receive data, he was convinced he found a match.
In mid-2018, Material Bank began accepting orders in beta mode from a select group of interior designers and architects.
Today, orders come into the e-commerce platform and are dropped into the WarehouseExpert WMS. The WMS, which is integrated with the LocusBots platform, arranges the orders into waves, creates picklists and other tasks, and dispatches them to the floor.
The picklists are divided into different warehouse zones and handled by autonomous mobile robots equipped with touch-pad screens, barcode scanners, and color-coded bins to separate orders. The robots follow an optimized route to the designated warehouse location.
As user order history accumulated, Made4net's WMS started to recognize order patterns. If, for example, one user always orders in the morning and never late in the day, the WMS schedules that user's order to be picked, packed, and shipped in an earlier wave. For users who place orders more sporadically during the day or late into the evening, their orders are scheduled for the late evening or closer to the last pick-up time.
Right out of the box
While it's a fast-moving warehouse environment, Made4net was able to meet Material Bank's requirements mostly with out-of-the-box functionality.
"From day one, we knew that this was going to be a dynamic environment," notes Amit Levy, Made4net's managing director. "We felt we could do much of what Material Bank needed with out-of-the-box functionality and that proved to be right.
"We also knew our teams could handle the variety of custom modifications Material Bank needed to support its unique business and we were right about that as well," Levy says of the cloud and subscription-based solution.
The main piece that required more than "usual work," Levy says, was on the integration side because the system had to integrate to the shopping carts, the accounting system, and the robots.
In January 2019, Material Bank officially opened the site to more users and manufacturers. By March 2019, it had thousands of registered users, with thousands more on a waiting list and 170 material manufacturers committed to the program. The company plans to phase in more manufacturers and additional users each month.
"Because we are working within a B2B space, we have to execute to perfection," Lopez says. "We can't afford to miss a beat because professionals depend on the services we provide to get the job done. If we tell you that you can order until midnight with delivery by 10 a.m. the next morning, and you lose a deal because of us, that's not acceptable."
The company also plans to expand the number of SKUs it holds. As of March 2019, it had about 200,000 SKUs in the warehouse and anticipates growing to approximately 1 million SKUs by the third or fourth quarter of 2020. To accommodate the volume, Material Bank plans to shift from its current 75,000-square-foot warehouse in Memphis to a facility six times larger by early 2020.
To close the cycle, Material Bank facilitates the largest material sample return process available today, as a way to collect and reuse discarded samples. The Made4net WMS enables the company to send a prepaid returns label with orders when requested, allowing users to send back, for free, the samples they don't need.
Using a receiving process tweaked by Made4net, the samples come back to the warehouse. If they pass quality assurance tests, they are put back on the shelves, extending the life cycle of each item and supporting Material Bank's focus on sustainability.
Material Bank will continue to monitor its technology requirements as it grows its warehouse footprint and takes on other projects beyond the shop floor. But, for now, its daily afternoon activity provides enough excitement and motivation to focus on the task at hand.
"We see this working every day," Lopez says. "A dashboard on our cell phones pings us every time a new order reaches the warehouse, so we started getting all those beeps. It's very exciting."