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Print-and-apply units compute for Bay Networks

Computer peripheral maker/distributor Bay Networks doubles throughput at its Sunnyvale, CA, distribution center with an automated print-and-apply labeling system and networked computer software systems.
FILED IN:  Controls  > Strategy
The surging popularity of the Internet and the prolific pace of computer and telecommunications advances have created a keenly competitive market among makers and providers of products and services related to these businesses. Systems maker and distributor Bay Networks realizes that if it doesn't quickly fill a customer order for such products one of its Silicon Valley competitors will. To improve customer service Santa Clara CA-based Bay Networks now assembles orders for parcel shipment worldwide at twice the speed it used to at its nearby Sunnyvale distribution center.

Doubling throughput of the manifests was made possible in large part by the addition of two print-and-apply labeling systems from Imtec (Bellows Falls VT). The Model 3900 Imtec units operate with an automated shipping manifest system referred to as ASAM. ASAM is networked to the company's host business system (known as SAP R/3) and a warehouse management system (WMS). Together these software systems control everything from order entry to the shipping of finished parcels (see sidebar p. 29).

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The Imtecs are installed on two separate parallel conveyors. Each system is equipped with a printer from Zebra Technologies (Vernon Hills IL). Using a variable-stroke applicating arm the Imtec units apply a printed pressure-sensitive label to the top of each corrugated shipper. Labeled boxes are conveyed downstream to lanes that sort parcels for each shipping medium used.

"We use the labelers as redundant systems" explains Charles C. Lindert staff industrial engineer at Bay Networks. That way should one machine require maintenance the other can be used. The same advantage applies to media changes on the labelers. "With the increase in throughput the Imtec systems provide we make more frequent changes in media such as labels or thermal print ribbons" he explains. "We do that about twice a day and the changeovers only take three to five minutes."

While only one labeler is typically used at any time the two can be used simultaneously. Each unit can handle the terminal's full-blown production volume on its own.

Volume is cyclical

Each label system operates at 25 boxes/ min (they're rated at 30/min) more than double the 12/min top rate before the two were operational in mid-'96. Before that label application was done manually both at the 90 sq' Sunnyvale distribution center that opened in November '95 and a previous 18 sq' plant.

Before mid-'96 Lindert recalls "We had a computer station at the end of each of our three conveyor lines. We had an operator at each station that scanned a unique identifier (UID) pressure-sensitive label that was [and still is] applied where the product is picked.

Lindert continues "The information from that UID label had to be validated against the information from ASAM that we planned to print on the ship label here at Sunnyvale. With a couple of keyboard entries the operator could accept the data or change it. Once accepted a ship-to label was printed then applied to the case manually."

Besides the time it took to do this the company found that for about 80% of its packages operators had to only press the return key and accept the information that was presented. "Generally the ship-to information from ASAM was correct" Lindert says "but we wanted a system that would automate label reading for all parcels so that a manual decision would not have to be made."

Bay Networks also wanted to at least have some sort of sortation system after labeling. With its former system a three-box order might have one box going to each of three sortation lines. So different operators had to try to find the right order.

Larger labels

In searching for automated label verification equipment Bay Networks tested other systems that were either too slow or lacked the ability to handle the tasks the company desired. "We wanted to increase our output by automating the evaluation and labeling steps as well as beginning to improve our sortation" Lindert notes. "But we also wanted to maintain the same software systems we had in place."

At a materials handling show in Chicago a few years ago the company learned about the Imtec system. Following up the company spoke at length with other system users and traveled to observe the systems in action including a United Parcel Service facility.

That operation sold Bay Networks on the labeling system. One key difference in the two systems is that UPS used 2x2" labels while Bay Networks uses 4x5" labels.

"I don't know if you'd call us a Beta site for them but Imtec had to adapt their technology for our larger label size" notes Lindert. "We went through start-up and debugging steps in early 1996 and were up and running late that spring."

'Building to stock'

Sunnyvale ships between 2 and 3 parcels daily during slow periods. That number soars to 7/day near the end of calendar quarters. "Our business is cyclical within quarters. We deal with large distribution partners that sell either to 'value-added' resellers or direct to end users. It is typical within the hi-tech industry to have many sales take place at the end of quarters."

Sunnyvale's orders are usually for systems that cost between $100 to $500. "This isn't stuff you go down the street to the local computer store to buy" Lindert says chuckling. "These are government organizations or big companies that we provide demo hardware to. They test our products against that of our major competitors and it's a lengthy decision-making process."

Sunnyvale operates under a "build-to-stock" system whereby it manufactures networking products for inventory. Conversely the company's Massachussets location is a "build-to-order" facility; there nothing is manufactured until an order is received. The company also has a plant in Ireland.

Filling the order

At the time of Packaging World's visit the Sunnyvale facility was especially stressed. Not only was it the end of the second quarter but also the end of Bay Networks' fiscal year. Still the operation ran smoothly.

At the Santa Clara corporate site orders are received and entered into the host business system and assigned a "wave" designator or parcel shipment type. The five waves are International-bound parcels domestic by air domestic via common carrier (LTL) domestic by UPS Ground and the "hot" wave. A hot wave is an order that must get to the shipping dock the same day it's received. It can include more than one carrier or destination.

The SAP system is appropriately networked to the WMS which is in turn linked to the ASAM software programs at Sunnyvale. Orders from SAP are received by the WMS which automatically organizes customer orders with similar wave designators.

WMS maintains detailed inventory information including product quantity and rack location. Sunnyvale maintains an inventory with a value that averages between $60 and $90 million. It houses more than 425 stock-keeping units with space for 1 pallets. Corrugated cartons contain the packaged product(s) within the warehouse.

Lightweight products are usually stacked in an 18 sq' mezzanine area. On the main level there's 48 sq' for bulk product storage and forward pick zones and 20 sq' for order consolidation plus the labeling units and sortation lanes.

The warehouse management system directs personnel to specific rack locations to pick product. Product comes from either the Santa Clara site a plant across the street in Sunnyvale or from an original equipment manufacturer. At all three locations product is packaged with a pressure-sensitive label applied to the side of the outer case. This label is separate from the UID label that's applied by pickers at Sunnyvale.

At the Sunnyvale distribution center pickers use hand-held radio-frequency scanners from Symbol Technologies (Bohemia NY) to read the bar code on the preapplied label which contains product model number and serial number. Then operators manually apply the 10-digit UID. This UID code links the case to a specific order within the networked WMS and ASAM software systems.

Repacking as necessary

Conveyors move the boxes at 120 fpm towards the print-and-apply labeling station. Boxes are conveyed past a scanner from Accu-Sort Systems (Telford PA). This scanner checks for the presence of the UID. If the code is present it continues to the Imtec. If not it's likely that the box has been taken from a larger case that contained several of that specific item. As such the smaller carton has no UID of its own. The absence of the UID indicates that it requires repacking.

When repacking is necessary the operator pushes the carton onto a conveyor "spur." At the end of the spur is a packing station equipped with two VersaPacker foam-in-bag systems from Sealed Air (Danbury CT). The machine creates foam-filled dunnage bags that are placed along with the appropriate product cartons into large corrugated cases. Operators set up these cases applying paper tape to create a bottom seal. Top case flaps are folded in and cases are conveyed through a case taper from 3M (St. Paul MN).

The operator then places the sealed case onto the main conveyor. The rollers on this conveyor are "skewed" so that cases move hard against one side of the conveyor. This provides three benefits. First by riding along one side the case is properly positioned to receive the p-s label from the Imtec. Second the UID label can be accurately scanned by sensors at various points downstream. And third cases angled to one side are less likely to ride on top of one another or "shingle." That reduces the possibility of jam-ups on the conveyor and limits the chances that a case could be pushed too far from a sensor to be scanned.

Print and apply

Approximately 20' upstream of the labeling station another Accu-Sort sensor detects the presence of a case as it passes by. The product's UID is scanned. As the case continues it is weighed by an in-line scale. The ASAM program uses the UID and the weight information to calculate freight charges based on case destination and carrier. In less than 10 seconds says Lindert ASAM determines if all case data is valid. If so it generates a label "image" to the Zebra's print buffer.

As the box enters the infeed of the labeler a scanner on the print-and-apply system reads the UID and requests an image from ASAM. Once matched the Zebra prints onto the label the carrier name tracking number UID sender and return addresses a bar code and shipping and account data.

The system accepts cases from 2" to 30" in height. Upstream of the applicator case height is determined as it passes between two "towers" that form a 100-watt "light curtain." As the case passes through the curtain of light the box height is measured by the light blocked by the box.

The labeler uses a shaft-angle encoder that's attached to the conveyor to track the location of each box. It generates electrical pulses proportional to the conveyor speed at the rate of 13 pulses per inch. Monitoring conveyor speed and box height helps the system prepare for label application.

A transfer mechanism feeds a printed label to the bottom of the variable-stroke applicator where vacuum holds it temporarily in place. The head drops down to a position between 1/2" and 3/4" above the measured top of the box. Once in position the air flow reverses to blow the p-s label onto the top of the case. If it's not blown on completely flat the label is manually tamped on later by operators during sortation.

Ready for sortation

Labeled boxes continue around a bend where another scanner reads the UID. That identification is relayed to ASAM that relays it to a downstream scanner. When that scanner detects the code it signals a mechanical pusher arm to nudge the case to the appropriate sortation lane. Sunnyvale currently has five sortation lanes to handle different waves though it has room to add three more lanes.

ASAM prints out a packing slip for each order. If for example an order includes three boxes a list will be generated after the third case is labeled. A sortation worker will group the three boxes for the order and set them aside. Bay Networks uses a separate work crew to consolidate orders and load trucks.

Depending on the volume of cases from the wave/sortation lane orders may be shipped as individual parcels or placed on pallets. Pallet loads are stretch wrapped and loaded onto trucks by forklift. Lindert says that major parcel carriers stage a trailer at Bay Networks' shipping dock bays. For carriers used less frequently the company uses a freight forwarding firm to move parcels to the carrier.

Automated sortation?

Formed in a late-October 1994 merger between SynOptics Communications and Wellfleet Communications Bay Networks sells through multiple distribution channels including more than 2 resellers such as OEMs systems integrators and distributors as well as 2-plus field sales and support personnel.

Bay Networks makes and distributes products such as hubs and access servers integrating them with software to create networking systems. Networking systems may combine voice video and data using multiple types of cabling and signaling. These may be both local and/or wide area networks. In its 1996 Annual Report the company describes a practical networking application:

"A general practitioner in a rural location can consult with a leading medical expert at a major medical facility to help his local patient receive the best care. Using high-speed telephone lines doctors can share patient histories view test results such as x-rays and talk to medical specialists with full live-action voice and video-all on their personal computers."

With its print-and-apply labeling systems and larger more efficient distribution center Bay Networks now prepares orders twice as fast for shipment. In the future it's likely that automated sortation systems will be installed to further improve the process.

Bay Networks' efforts to enhance its efficiency should come as no surprise. After all the firm prides itself as being a pioneer in delivering technological "firsts." Now the company has put its network technology to use in parcel handling-with impressive results.

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