BACKGROUND

BuySeasons is a major online retailer of costumes, accessories, seasonal décor, and party supplies. Product offerings include costumes for adults, boys and girls, makeup, jewelry, wigs, masks, party favors, and party tableware. The Company operates from a 380,000 square foot operations and distribution facility in New Berlin, WI. In addition to its own eCommerce customers, BuySeasons also fulfills eCommerce orders from major retailers including Walmart, Amazon, Target, and JCPenny.

ORDER FULFILLMENT OPERATIONS BEFORE FASTFETCH

Prior to the installation of the FastFetch technology, BuySeasons employed 100 voice-based picking units supplemented with RF guns which made their picking process labor intensive. The problems with these voice-based units were long training times, misrecognition due to the noisy warehouse environment and poor picking speeds due to the requirement to speak confirmation check digits while picking. Scanners were added to their voice units to reduce the number of times check digits were spoken but batch (multiple order) picking was still unacceptably slow since multiple scans were then required.

The legacy picking strategy deployed at BuySeasons separated orders into two classes: Baggable orders (e.g., costumes) and non-baggable orders (e.g., party supplies). The non-baggable items were picked directly into shipping cartons; however, no optimization was used to decide which orders should go into each batch so a typical batch cart had to travel through almost all aisles of the large picking area to pick products. The baggable items were picked and transported to a packing station for bagging and labeling for shipping. Single- item orders were picked in bulk, one SKU per batch, and then matched to order invoices, one-by-one, during picking. Multiline baggable orders were picked into totes in non-optimized batches. Because their business is highly seasonable, BuySeasons needed to employ approximately 600 associates—most of them temporary workers—to meet peak order fulfillment requirements in the two months before Halloween. After the peak season, most of the associates were terminated as workload fell back to normal levels.

THE CHALLENGES

Faced with having to hire and train a large number of seasonal, temporary employees and the relatively low picking rates achievable with voice picking, BuySeasons began exploring alternative picking technologies capable of providing significantly higher performance in their order fulfillment processes. BuySeasons would have to continue to rely heavily on temporary workers unless they could find a solution that would at least double picking productivity. Even with fewer temporary workers, training time remained a key consideration, so it was important to find a system that enabled temporary workers to achieve high productivity rates quickly with minimal training time. After evaluating several alternative order fulfillment systems, BuySeasons selected FastFetch’s cart-based, batch-picking system that integrates voice output, barcode scanning, and lightdirected putting technologies into a single system. In addition to the high labor cost of hiring many seasonal pickers during their busy season and having to train those pickers each year, new distribution centers in the area (including one for Amazon) tightened the labor market and made it increasingly difficult to recruit enough temporary workers to meet order demands at peak season and then terminate them shortly thereafter. Several factors complicated these issues, including long training times for voice picking, lack of batch optimization, and nondense storage areas containing a high number of large SKU locations. Furthermore, most full-time permanent employees who picked orders during the offseason had to be serve as auditors to check temporary pickers’ work for accuracy. Varied order profiles also required different picking methodologies and had to be waved separately.

THE FASTFETCH SOLUTION

The ROI on the system is unbelievable with a less than 12 month full payback …
— Joe Plassmeyer
Director of
Operations

FastFetch Corporation and Ascension Logistics teamed to create a solution incorporating changes to the BuySeasons WMS (Ascension) and new strategies and technologies in their picking processes (FastFetch). After analyzing BuySeasons’ historical order data, FastFetch concluded that orders should be partitioned into three distinct classes: single-item baggable orders, non-baggable orders, and multi-item baggable orders. The BuySeasons WMS was modified to flag each order with its class, so the FastFetch software could automatically optimize and batch orders in these classes.

Single-item baggable orders were observed to constitute the majority of orders. This observation led to the conclusion that substantial efficiency gains could be achieved by deploying a 2-Phase picking strategy. Phase 1 of this strategy uses a cart (with attached tablet PC) loaded with totes to gather SKUs in bulk for each batch of singleitem, baggable orders. This Phase 1 process requires a single trip through a large storage area to pick SKUs for hundreds of orders. Phase 2 of the strategy is conducted at the packing station by scanning the barcode on a single-SKU tote with product gather in Phase 1 and printing a set of invoices equal to the number of items in the single-SKU tote. Packing is completed by placing an invoice for an order on top of a single item from the tote and placing both onto a conveyor that moves the invoice under a fixed beam scanner. The scanner reads the invoice barcode immediately before inserting both the invoice and item into a mailing bag. The information scanned is then used to print a shipping label for the customer on the outside of the bag. Any difference between invoice counts and tote contents signals an error that is resolved by supervisors.

Non-baggable orders are picked into shipping boxes, with light direction, utilizing optimized batch carts carrying multiple orders. Up to 24 orders are picked in a single trip through the picking area, with similar orders batched together to minimize total walking time. The FastFetch software assigns different sized boxes to cart shelves in a way that minimizes wasted shelf space, thereby increasing the cart’s box density.

Multi-item baggable orders are picked in the same way as non-baggable orders, but in distinct batches in order to attain better cart container densities. These orders are picked, with light direction, into multi-compartment trays containing customer invoices. The trays are delivered to the bagging area, and the items in each compartment are placed onto a conveyor and the invoice placed on top of the items. Using the same process described for single item baggable orders, the invoice and items are moved down a conveyor where the invoice barcode is scanned, the invoice and items are automatically inserted into a mailing bag, and a customer label is printed on the mailing bag.

While the three distinct classes of orders are best handled using somewhat different picking strategies, all three picking strategies can use the same carts. FastFetch optimizes the batches to minimize walk time between picks. With this optimization, bulk-picking carts typically visit only 1 or 2 aisles to complete picking the batch, thereby greatly reducing walking distance and greatly improving picking efficiency in the large picking area.

THE RESULTS

During last peak season we were able to ship 34% more orders with 15% less labor in our single biggest day. We now have plans to scale back from 3 full shifts down to 1 12-hour shift during our next peak season.
— Joe Plassmeyer Director of Operations

Significant improvements in picking rates were achieved at BuySeasons after incorporating FastFetch’s order-fulfillment solutions into their operations. The chart below shows picking rates achieved before and after installation of FastFetch technology for the average over all pickers, the average of the top five pickers and the best hour for the best picker. As shown in the chart, FastFetch’s high-speed picking technology and batch optimization strategy more than tripled the average picking rate from 38 lines/hr. to 132 lines/hr. Moreover, the top five pickers, who performed significantly better than the average, also tripled their picking rates after the FastFetch technology was installed.

*Data taken from the BuySeasons WMS during peak season

With the FastFetch technology, the average picker now achieves picking rates that are nearly double the rate previously achieved by the top pickers. Direct labor costs varied between full-time and temporary associates, but at a direct labor cost of $15/hour, the increase in the average pick rate from 38 to 132 picks per hour lowered the average direct labor cost from 39 cents per pick to just 11 cents. On BuySeasons’ busiest day in 2016, before installing the FastFetch system, 29,000 orders were shipped with 200 associates working in outbound (including pickers, packers, auditors, loaders, etc). Using the FastFetch system in 2017, BuySeasons’ busiest day only required 175 associates to ship more than 47,000 orders, resulting in an 85% increase in productivity. BuySeasons was also able to replace 100 voice-based units with 40 FastFetch pick carts resulting in significantly higher reliability and annual license renewal savings.

What Makes FastFetch Right for BuySeasons?

The impressive speed and accuracy of the FastFetch system stems from three key elements:

  1. Multimodal Picking Technology
  2. Optimized Batch Picking
  3. 2-Phase Order Fulfillment Strategy

— Jack Peck, FastFetch
President

As explained by Jack Peck, President and Co-founder of FastFetch, “The impressive speed and accuracy of the FastFetch strategy stems from three key elements. The first is FastFetch’s multimodal picking technology that uses a combination of voice, barcode scanning and light-directed putting; the second is FastFetch’s highly optimized, batch-picking strategy; and the third is deploying a 2-Phase order fulfillment strategy for one class of orders.”

Multimodal Picking Technology
FastFetch’s multimodal picking technology integrates voice, barcode scanning, and light directed putting displays into a single system. Voice output directs the picker to the pick location and informs the picker of the pick quantity. Barcode scanning, using a hand-free, finger attached, ring scanner, is used to confirm that the correct product is picked, and lighted numerical displays on the carts highlight the location for each required put. The three technologies working together enable the picker to fulfill multiple orders simultaneously in a hands-free, eyes-up manner without having to look at a RF terminal display or a piece of paper. Reliability is high since the FastFetch lighted displays contain no mechanical parts. Unlike the lighted displays from other vendors that contain mechanical buttons to confirms picks or puts, the FastFetch lighted displays contain a light sensitive proximity sensor that is triggered by waving a hand or object within one inch of a flashing LED on the display. FastFetch’s multimodal picking strategy yields quick and accurate picking with minimal training. New pickers are typically trained and capable of production picking in 10 minutes or less.

Optimized Batch Picking
Before the actual picking process begins, FastFetch employs a proprietary optimization algorithm to assign collections of orders to carts in a way that minimizes the total walking time over all carts used to fulfill a wave of orders. The result of the assignment is that orders on each cart tend to have substantial commonality among the SKU’s required and the SKU’s required are stored in relatively close proximity to each other. This means that pickers must walk a much shorter distance than might otherwise be required to retrieve required items. Additionally, since the optimization algorithm assigns orders to carts having much commonality among the SKU’s required, further efficiencies are gained by picking multiple items of the same SKU and distributing those items into cartons as directed by the light displays adjacent to locations on the carts.

2-Phase Order Fulfillment Strategy
As mentioned earlier, an analysis of BuySeasons’ order profile revealed that a sizable portion of orders in a typical wave consisted of a single, baggable item. The ideal strategy for fulfilling single-item orders utilizes a 2-Phase strategy. Phase 1 of the strategy retrieves needed SKUs for many orders in bulk and then places them into separate totes (one SKU per tote) on a cart.
Phase 2 of the strategy is executed at the packing station by:

  • scanning the tote to produce a set of invoices,
  • placing an invoice on top of an item in the tote,
  • placing the item and invoice on a conveyor,
  • feeding both the item and invoice into a machine that scans the invoice, bags the product and invoice, and prints the appropriate shipping label directly on the bag.

Since each cart has 24 product locations, each cart can transport multiple units of 24 distinct SKU’s. This means that an individual picker can quickly retrieve products for perhaps several hundred orders on a single trip through the picking area.

CONCLUSION

This was the smoothest installation I have ever experienced.
— Eric Kirkhofer, BuySeasons COO

FastFetch’s patented picking technologies are versatile enough to adapt to any picking situation. The team analyzed BuySeasons’ specific challenges and requirements to configure and deploy a picking solution using multiple picking strategies to meet their needs and exceed expectations within a constrained timeframe. BuySeasons needed to reduce the cost and time spent training new pickers to deal with the traditional pain points of any seasonal picking operation. The performance improvements FastFetch provided further reduced order fulfillment stresses by allowing them to recruit, hire, train, and employ fewer temporary workers to handle their short, peak order season. The entire system was installed, tested, and placed into production in less than 30 days.