NorthShore Care Supply is a classic business success story, stemming from a condition most people don't want to talk about—incontinence. Unfortunately, this problem afflicts millions of adults and children, causing trips to the store to be uncomfortable or embarrassing for those standing in line to buy products.
These stories from loved ones led NorthShore founder and President Adam Greenberg to recognize this underserved market. While working on his MBA nights and weekends at the University of Chicago, he was looking for a business idea. That inspiration came in response to these needs and led him to launch NorthShore Care Supply in 2002.
"One person I knew was reluctant to buy products at the grocery store, and another was always running out of supplies from poor internet delivery time windows," he recalls. "It seemed because of the need for convenience, privacy, and high-quality products and fulfillment services, home delivery of incontinence supplies made a lot of sense."
Fast forward to 2021. NorthShore is now the leading supplier of online super-premium incontinence supplies and adult diapers, sold primarily in the home delivery market. Due to rapid growth, NorthShore needed a new, larger facility. Greenberg saw the opportunity to invest in a more efficient, automated facility tailored to lower cost per order fulfillment matched to the business requirements.
The automation investment had four main business goals:
- Responsive delivery.
- Superior customer service.
- Cost reduction.
- Increased operation efficiencies.
After several discussions with potential system integrators and consultants, Greenburg selected the Numina Group, a tier-1 warehouse design and automation system integrator, to define and implement a scalable automation solution that would meet and exceed his business requirements. "I liked their business model of being an independent system integrator with the in-house process design engineers and software expertise, and their 35-year history of delivering automation solutions to the warehouse industry," stated Greenburg.
Meeting the Next Day Delivery Demand
Same-day order delivery of urgent-need supplies was a critical requirement for NorthShore's new operation. "We needed a solution that reduced touches, excess labor, and ensured customer shipments made the parcel carrier cutoff times," stated Greenburg. Today, an average order is three to four picks with a $100 value, consisting of a large carton of diapers and a smaller box with two to four trial sample items to try.
With Amazon in mind, the company partnered with FedEx to develop services that could compete with the retail giant. Like Amazon, Greenberg put in processes so orders could be packed and shipped the same day as they come to them. Greenberg followed up with weekend pickups and then seven-day-a-week deliveries from one central U.S. distribution center.
Orders can be a mix of large bulky cases, customer samples, creams, cleaning wipes, and accessories which added to the challenges. In the original facility, associates had to pick each customer order discretely.
This picking process was slow and demanding, requiring walking throughout the DC and using a small cart to pick the order. Then the operators returned to a manual pack station, re-checking the order content, and packing the contents into discrete cartons, a very labor-intense process.
"The old processes just weren't scalable to keep up with our 30% growth in 2020," recalls Greenberg. The goal was to manage the growing order volume in a single shift with a more efficient pick and pack process that would take out 50% of the pickers' wasted walk time and match at the same time the increase in productivity across the pack and ship order fulfillment operation.
Traditional Material Handling System Versus Autonomous Mobile Robots, AMRs
The Numina Group's design study occurred parallel to the new building search and selection phase over several months. The joint Numina-NorthShore Team first looked at a conventional two to three-level pick module using a pick to conveyor system during the study.
They ruled this system out and then analyzed the use of a small fleet of 25-30 AMRs. But again, due to their limitation of handling only 150-lb. loads and a projected pick rate of 75 lines per picker, the productivity boost was not high enough due to the small order picking capacity. There were also concerns with the bottleneck of the AMR and tote un-load/load at the packing operation as the business grew.
The ultimate design analysis has shown that a smaller fleet of large-capacity AMRs transporting a large batch order capacity of 20 or more orders per cart was more efficient and cost-effective, leading to the selection of Waypoint Robotics with their 700-lb. capacity AMR. In addition, Wayfair's rugged, high-capacity AMRs included an auto-cart connection and drop technology, and the large payload allowed greater lines per picker rates.
The design incorporates floor-level access to all SKUs slotted at floor level across six pick zones. The highest moving SKUs are stored in three deep pallet-flow to minimize replenishment for the top 100 moving products.
Slotting and storage improvements have reduced replenishment cycles. If required, the approach operates from rear access carton flow and pallet flow without disrupting the AMR order picking operation. As a result, the picking solution fleet of only six AMRs can process a peak daily of 3,500 to 4,000 orders a shift.
WES Directs the Order Fulfilment Operation
Numina's Real-time Distribution Software (RDS) is the Warehouse Execution and Control System (WES-WCS) that manages the order release logic and picking using its pick by voice technology. The software application coordinates the movement of the AMR pick cart and people picking tasks across the picking operations. This arrangement is what Hanrahan calls the "direct me" approach, uniting people's work tasks and robots' activities together in a single coordinated operation throughout the pick, pack, and ship order fulfillment processes.
The WMS releases orders to the RDS system, including the weight and cube of items, cases, and order shipment priority status. The RDS system creates optimized batches of orders to batch pick carts and the highest pick lines density within zones. The order release process then selects and assigns the available work to each AMR.
The system automatically dispatches the AMRs to pick up a cart and travel to the first required pick zone:
- The RDS looks for the closest picker, and a voice command directs the operator to meet the arriving AMR cart at the first pick location.
- The picker scans the cart, and a voice command directs the operator to scan the locations and product barcodes to validate picking.
- Voice command directs the placement of the items to the correct cart order assigned position.
Combining voice and AMRs has resulted in picking rates exceeding 250 lines an hour per operator at pick completion. In addition, this voice picking system enables new employees to be productive in 15 minutes while providing 99.9% picking accuracy.
Once the cart picking is completed across the required zones, the system directs the AMRs to transport and drops their carts at an open packing station, and they're ready for the next work assignment. Pack operators then complete the packing of each carton, place the cartons or full cases onto the automated pack, and ship conveyor line for in-line scanning, weighing, dimensioning automated print, applying labeling, and sorting to the required parcel carrier line. The AMRs also perform the duties of picking up the empty carts at packing and transporting them to a staging area to be positioned at an optimum position for their next batch pick assignment.
Automation Components Work Together as a Complete Solution
According to Greenberg, "the operation is synchronized like a perfect Swiss watch."
Everything shows up at the right time at the right place. And it has been a great process both from our staff and management level and vendor level, all working together to make sure that the business process is as efficient as possible."
Warehouse associates are very much part of the operational picture at NorthShore. Rather than people doing non-valued work, the AMRs have taken miles of walk time out of the operation allowing NorthShore's employees to focus on valued services.
Numina Group's warehouse automation solutions incorporate a design innovation of large capacity batch picking carts delivered by AMRs. The approach more than doubled picking rates from 60 picks at the old facility to 200 plus per hour at the new operation. Results: NorthShore has achieved a 40% reduction in labor requirements and increased accuracy and efficiency by uniting robots and workers at their warehouse order fulfillment operation.
As NorthShore continues to grow and thrive in the world of E-Com, Greenberg notes that they "have control over rapid same-day delivery operations and can manage all of our sales channels, including fulfilling Amazon Prime more cost-effectively." In addition, he notes that they are an Amazon-certified Prime supplier.
"We can ship Amazon Prime orders directly from the DC, bypassing the need to ship to Amazon's warehouses. I'm not aware of any of our competitors who can do that. We are always looking at continuous process improvements managed by the right blend of automation to give us a competitive edge in the market we serve."