Dematic has given Sigma Pharmaceuticals’ Queensland distribution centre (DC) a shot in the arm, updating the site’s ageing pick-to-light (PTL) system and introducing voice-directed picking as part of a comprehensive logistics systems upgrade.
The new technologies have had the desired effect of improving Sigma’s distribution performance across the board with productivity and accuracy showing gains within the first couple of months.
The PTL system, installed more than 14 years ago, “was well past its use-by-date,” said Sigma’s DC Manager, Chris Jenkins.
“With over 95% of all orders we process passing through the PTL system, it was a core component of our distribution strategy.
“Dematic had done a terrific job in keeping the PTL system going over the years but the outdated technology and software could not be supported forever. The risk of a critical system failure was increasing day by day,” said Mr Jenkins.
“Together with Dematic’s logistics systems modernisation team, we reviewed a range of options to meet our current and future distribution requirements.”
Sigma was using the PTL system to pick its fast-moving, high volume SKUs (stock keeping units), with slower moving items being picked from shelving using printed pick lists.
Dematic’s Modernisation Manager, Peter Medway, said: “Initially we contemplated decommissioning the PTL system and eliminating paper by switching over to voice-directed picking for all of Sigma’s picking activities. However, when we analysed Sigma’s order and SKU movement profiles in detail, it became apparent that other solutions would have a more positive effect on productivity and throughput capacity.
“Our detailed analysis revealed that the optimal solution for Sigma was to not only replace the PTL system, but to expand its application and to utilise it in conjunction with voice-directed picking to eliminate paper and significantly increase order picking flexibility.
“New developments in our PickDIRECTOR software enable voice-directed picking to be used in conjunction with PTL in a pick module. This makes it possible for multiple orders to be processed at the same time in the same zone, which significantly improves order picking flexibility, productivity and throughput capacity for Sigma,” he said.
Modernising an existing distribution system is much more challenging than working on a completely new installation, said Dematic’s Project Manager, Dominic Figliano.
“To make sure Sigma was able to continue meeting its requirements under the Community Service Obligation covering the distribution of goods to pharmacies and make the transition seamless for Sigma’s customers, we developed a staged implementation and training strategy,” explained Mr Figliano.
“Before we could begin work on the PTL system, we needed to upgrade the pick module conveyor controls and software. A clever piece of programming by one of our software engineers enabled us to install, test and commission these changes over a couple of weekends, and then switch the system back to its previous configuration until the rest of the upgrades could be installed.”
Removing Sigma’s existing PTL system, installing, testing and commissioning the new software and hardware, including more than 3000 new PTL displays, would normally require at least a week, said Mr Figliano.
“Given Sigma’s need to continue supply throughout the upgrade, this simply wasn’t possible. We had to come up with a smarter, quicker alternative,” he said.
Dematic’s solution was to replicate Sigma’s pick module layout in an unused corner of the warehouse.
“We mapped the entire PTL system and created a unique ID for each component and PTL location,” explained Mr Figliano.
“We then created a virtual pick module by setting up temporary shelving, and systematically installed all the PTL hardware that would be required, making sure the PTL displays were in exactly the same location they would be within the actual pick module, and labelled each assembly with their unique ID.
“After we were satisfied with the performance of the virtual system, we broke it down into ready-to-fit sub-assemblies. This made it possible for us to remove the old system, and install and commission the new one over a single weekend.”
Concurrently, Dematic’s modernisation team was training Sigma’s DC staff in the use of the new PTL system and, more importantly, the introduction of voice-directed picking.
“The response to the training and the willingness of Sigma’s staff to adopt the new technology gave us the confidence to go for the ‘Big Bang’ and bring both the new PTL and voice-directed picking systems online over the one weekend. While it was still a huge effort involving a team of around 30 electricians, controls and software engineers working around the clock, we completed the project in time for distribution to start as usual on Monday morning. By the third day, Sigma was achieving its targets.
“We’re very happy with what we were able to achieve,” added Mr Figliano, “but a lot of the credit belongs to the people at Sigma.”
“The project is a tribute to the ingenuity and tenacity of Dematic’s modernisation team to deliver a result,” said Sigma’s Chris Jenkins.
“Dematic’s sound understanding of the wholesale pharmaceutical trade and the idiosyncrasies of our business ensured our new logistics solution is the best possible fit for our business,” he said.
“Dematic has been a great partner and plays an important role in helping us to provide a premium quality service. Our ability to get products to our customers in a timely and cost-efficient manner has played its part in Sigma continuing to grow its market share in Queensland,” concluded Mr Jenkins.