Making The Most Out Of Capacity

Coffee maker brews up success with mobile printing.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters was named one of America's "100 Fastest-Growing Small Companies" by Fortune Small Business in 2006. The company was growing fast, but its main distribution center in Waterbury, VT was not.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters expected the facility to meet its needs for at least six years after it was built, but after three the DC was running at full capacity. The company needed to seek out new ways to make the distribution center more efficient and to get more out of the capacity it had. Mobile printing was one of the answers to these challenges, making a key process more efficient to help Green Mountain keep up with its growing business.

Green Mountain coffee grew from a local favorite to a successful national brand through its mail-order catalog and Web site. More success followed. Green Mountain coffee is sold nationally under the famous Newman's Own Organics brands and is served in McDonald's restaurants throughout the Northeast.

In short, Green Mountain coffee is hot. Workload at its central distribution center was overheating. The facility runs three shifts and operates 24 hours a day to ship orders to customers and other distribution centers. The company needed to find new ways to keep up with the growing demand.

To support the output it needed, Green Mountain decided to increase automation at its main distribution center in Waterbury, VT. Products are stored in aisles that are each 60 yards long. A material handling systems specialist was contracted to develop a customized warehouse control system (WCS) to integrate with Green Mountain's legacy enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Integrated Labeling Systems (ILS), a Zebra Technologies Premier Partner, recommended new bar code label printers and processes to provide more time savings and efficiency gains.

Orders are picked during the day and shelves are replenished at night. Most of the aisles are picked and replenished manually by workers on forklifts and a robotic automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) handles the rest. The new WCS receives orders from the ERP system and directs all activity.

Forklift-based workers receive replenishment and picking instructions wirelessly on MC9000 mobile computers from Motorola. Cases and other items being placed into storage require a bar coded tracking label and items being picked are relabeled with a bar code to associate them with the specific order. All labeling is done at the point of activity using Zebra QL 420 wireless mobile printers that are mounted on the forklifts. The WCS directs workers to specific aisle locations to pick or replenish products. When they arrive there, the ERP system generates the specific label format and sends it to the printer in real time over the 802.11b wireless network. Workers immediately apply the label to the item.

"Mobile printing is a huge time savings," says Mitch Casey, MIS business manager at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. "Having wireless connectivity comes in so handy."

Mobile printing helps keep transactions accurate and delivers many of the productivity gains from the optimized pick and replenishment routes the WCS calculates. Previously, labels were printed in batches and workers drove their forklifts to a central printing location to pick up labels for their picking and putaway routes.

The practice made it possible to apply the wrong label to the wrong item. It also limited productivity, because workers made numerous trips up and down the 60-yard aisles each day just to retrieve labels.

"Our biggest concern about mobile and wireless printing was 'Would it work?'" says Casey. "Wireless coverage and signal strength is always a concern. Plus, it is a warehouse environment and the printers don't get treated with kid gloves. We wanted rugged machines that could be mounted securely. We found the Zebra printers to be both." And wireless coverage wasn't an issue either.

Wireless Connectivity Is Key

Green Mountain takes advantage of the 802.11b wireless connectivity available for the QL 420s, eliminating the need to cable them to the mobile computers. The printers also help protect the wireless network, because they support the WPA wireless security protocol that Green Mountain is migrating to for securing its wireless devices.

A new S4M, stationary Zebra printer with a wireless network card is used to print four-by-10-inch labels for items that are picked by the robotic AS/RS machine. Additionally, Zebra compact desktop printers are used to print case labels, as every product gets put into a case.

Inventory turns quickly at the distribution center, so Green Mountain Coffee Roasters doesn't need the endurance that thermal-transfer labels provide. During its system upgrade, the company decided to switch from thermal-transfer to direct-thermal printing for putaway labels, which has reduced expenses by eliminating ribbon costs. Green Mountain also uses Zebra industrial printers and has Xi series high-performance models in place to support other high volume labeling tasks in the distribution center.

"We use so many printers here that we wanted to standardize," said Casey. "When the time came to start mobile printing, we already used so many Zebra printers we wanted to stick with them. We'd never even entertain another product in our warehouse for printing labels."

"Mobile printing saves time because workers don't need to go back to a print station," says Randy Lewey, material handling and procurement supervisor at Green Mountain's Vermont distribution center. "To travel that distance was about three or four minutes round trip. Eliminating that is a huge time saver."

Maybe even adding enough time to stop and smell the coffee.