The overnight hours are quiet at IBT’s 120,000 square foot Central Distribution Center (CDC). During the day, some of the department’s 20 employees circulate around the 12 miles of shelving, selecting merchandise from the approximately 350,000 SKUs in inventory to fill the more than 1,600 daily orders.
While there might not be any apparent activity in the warehouse at night, much work is being done behind the scenes.
The Company’s central data processing center is preparing the next day’s work for the order pickers as well as taking care of other business.
The Main IBT Computer is analyzing the previous day’s sales at each of IBT’s 45 branches, generating invoices for customers, adjusting inventory levels throughout the Company, preparing replenishment orders to send to IBT’s 300 plus vendors and generally getting ready for the next business day.
Warehouse personnel start arriving at work well in advance of the official 8:00 a.m. starting time.
Some drink coffee, grab a fast bite of something for energy or appetite relief, schmooze with coworkers, tidy the work area or just prepare their focus for the full day of work ahead.
When the action starts, the whole warehouse machine gets going. The conveyor line starts moving, fork lifts built to operate in the narrow confines of a well-stocked depot start scurrying around. Powered tuggers hook up with carts, special powered carriers zip around and pallet jacks get in place to shift skid loads of goods to where they are needed around the floor.
Much of the action also starts in the warehouse’s four zones. This is where the critical step of pulling orders for customers begins.
In each zone, merchandise is arranged in a logical sequence on the shelves. All of a given vendor’s items will be stored together. Items of varying sizes are shelved in ascending order of package dimensions.
Zones follow a certain logic that is largely based on providing an equitable division of labor among the order pickers. The goal is for each of the workers to process roughly the same number of transactions each day.
The system of getting instructions to the floor workers relies on technology and builds in quality control and productivity management as well.
The computer has stacked up orders by zone and arranged the individual items in a logical work sequence. It prevents extra steps, backtracking and inefficient work practices.
Each order picker has a receiver, printer and scanner unit dedicated to his zone.
When it is time to get an order picked, the receiver lights up with the information needed to remove the item from the shelf and put it in the “shopping cart.” At the same time, the printer generates a label that will direct the item to the proper destination, usually an IBT branch location.
The order picker will also scan the product’s bin sticker bar code and will verify that the item selected was the item expected.
Picked orders are transported over IBT’s elaborate conveyor system. Because IBT is a company that sells conveying solutions, they have designed the CDC to showcase conveying technology.
IBT also offers a wide range of other material handling products – all the way from shelving and racks to devices to help move heavy objects easily. These products, too, are showcased in the warehouse’s everyday operations.
Orders are accumulated at a central packing station, checked and then packed for delivery to the branches – and then sent by UPS or contract carrier. The merchandise shipped each day is for branch stock replacement or for immediate customer use.
In those instances where IBT’s normal prompt and efficient order turnaround isn’t quite quick enough, the item in question is taken off the shelf immediately and then given, delivered or dispatched to the waiting buyer.
While one team of order pickers, packers and shippers are hustling to get a big chunk of merchandise out one door, the equally energetic and ambitious receiving team is bringing new stuff through another one.
Replenishment orders arrive in a number of ways: truckload, LTL, freight and express companies.
Each lot of new merchandise is carefully inspected: Did it arrive undamaged? Is it in good condition, generally? Was it what we ordered? Is it OK to log it in and get it on the shelves?
Pickers work with directed efficiency. The system knows what items they need – and directs them to do the work in logical order.
Receiving, on the other hand, is a bit random.
While it is possible to have a pretty good idea of what goods to expect on any given day, stuff arrives when it gets there – in no predetermined or logical order.
The receiving people deal with surprises each day and work to get the new stuff set up, on the shelves, ready to sell and ready to be picked and processed for customer orders.
There is a lot of collective knowledge and experience on the floor of CDC.
Workers like Jim Rhea can boast of great seniority. Rhea has over 31 years and others come close. 15 years or more of company service are not uncommon in the warehouse group, either.
The net effect is a workplace where the people know their jobs well, know the products equally well, work to maintain high standards of productivity and take great pride in the quality and accuracy of the work.
Information about warehouse throughput and accuracy is posted at several locations in the work area.
This on-the-job experience doesn’t lead to complacency, however. More than one member of the warehouse team reports that the best thing about the job is “the variety.” They go through a work routine that has them having different experiences each day.
What is constant, however, is the stream of products moving in, products moving out – destined to stop briefly on the shelves of the IBT branches, before being put into place in customer’s machinery – where they will work to keep up the Midwest’s contribution to American economic prosperity.
The warehouse shuts down at the end of the workday. Things are quiet during the overnight hours at IBT’s Central Distribution Center. Behind the scenes, the Company’s central data processing center is getting ready for another work day.