Volume 12 | Issue 3 | Year 2009

It would be good fodder for an old-style comedy routine: a pair of misfits – think Laurel & Hardy – take jobs at a distribution center and end up setting the industry back 10 years, picking the wrong boxes – gin instead of vodka, beer instead of wine – and routing them onto the wrong truck, destined south instead of north, to the wrong customer. While such comedic foils (think a hyper, out-of-control Laurel crying uncontrollably to an angry Stan as dozens of boxes end up on the wrong truck) are pretty much the stuff of imagination, one company makes sure its customers never see a comedic – albeit tragic – end to their hard work.
Taking that beverage distribution scenario to the opposite end of the spectrum – minus the Laurel & Hardy madcap fumbles – yet still focused on the need to get products out efficiently and effectively, W&H Systems, Carlstadt, N.J., has helped many customers fill their distribution orders and save time and money in the process. One such customer was Southern Wine & Spirits, Santa Fe Springs, Calif., which constructed a 620,000-square-foot distribution center to distribute wine, spirits, non-alcoholic mixers, water and energy drinks, consolidating five regional warehouses into one high-speed distribution facility. Thanks to technology supplied by W&H, that facility today has one of the highest throughput rates in the industry, featuring a high-speed conveyor and sortation system capable of handling 9,200 cases per hour.

W&H began its material handling business in 1964, supplying machines to the garment industry such as overhead rail systems in which garments on hangers travel around a facility to various distribution points. Overhead rail systems have long been recognized as the most efficient means of handling hanging garments by apparel manufacturers and in a warehouse or distribution center.

But when W&H came into being, it was an age before automation, when garments were moved manually along their tow lines via chains. When automation led to better efficiencies – whereupon personal computers and use of data furthered that process – W&H was there with an array of solutions to fit a specific need, helping to speed the conveyance and distribution of goods. In the late 1970s to early 1980s, as firms became specialized, W&H realized its area of expertise would be to understand a customer’s warehouse configuration and distribution needs and then design a plan and material handling system to fit those parameters.

“Distribution went from many to one, to one to many,” notes W&H President Don Betman. Where retailers were buying 1,000 white shirts and sending 100 out to stores, where each store gets 100, it was now sending out maybe five shirts and then replenishing supplies as the shirts sold, so no one store had to maintain a lot of inventory. “When our customers started doing that we had to change and come up with systems to support it,” Betman explains. This is when the company developed its RSU™ Tray Sorter, which enabled it to expand into retail and supply companies such as Macy’s.

The RSU™ Tray Sorter provides a durable, inexpensive and accurate method of sorting a wide range of products. Its flexible nature enables unique system configurations that match specific application needs, while the simple design allows for a low up front investment and minimal annual maintenance costs.

Through such innovation, W&H supplies space and personnel productivity improvements through ergonomic, and ROI concentric designs in automation. W&H supplies turn-key material handling capabilities including system analysis, system design, simulation, engineering, controls and software, installation, commissioning and post-sales support. Its wide range of equipment features high speed carton station and unit sortation, garment sortation, pick/pack systems, commodity equipment (such as conveyor, merges, loaders/unloaders, rack and shelving) as well as specially designed equipment that provides unique features that complement W&H’s material handling designs. This equipment along with the company’s state-of-the-art controls and software can be integrated to meet any system requirements.

W&H is involved in every phase of a project and business. The company coordinates everything through a convenient well-documented project management process.

Having tackled the various nuances of retail soft and hard goods distribution, in 1994, W&H turned toward the wholesale wine & spirits industry, with one of the first automated label picking systems – something that freed up time and energy – and saved on the warehouse employee’s vocal chords as well. Prior, collected orders from each store were brought to the warehouse, where a “caller” called out orders – four boxes of this, six boxes of that for a particular location. Workers picked through inventory and loaded boxes onto a line and someone further along would put it all onto a truck, which expended a lot of labor.

Through use of advanced technology, W&H systems can sort orders onto the right truck, with the order for the last stop of the day loaded in first. All done via computer, the system means fewer trips to each sku stocking location per associate. “We now have more label-based systems installed than anyone in the country – even five among the seven highest-rated ones,” Betman says. Altogether, W&H has supplied more than 50 similar distribution projects, which has enabled it to increase annual sales from $30 to $50 million.

Other technologies in the company’s portfolio include a Warehouse Control System, which analyzes through the use of algorithms the needs of a particular distribution facility on a particular day and downloads data on peak versus slow periods. The software is the product of many years of research and practical experience in warehouse and distribution center automation and controls. Key capabilities of WCS systems include relieving a customer host computer of managing a real-time material handling automation interface, maximizing system throughput and performance, and utilizing the most efficient methods for pallet, case and item routing.

In addition, as the first company to come out with a graphical display of a customer’s system, W&H created the WHizard™ Control and Monitoring System in the 1980s. WHizard is a LAN or Internet-based graphical monitoring system that provides a highly effective graphical and visual tool to help monitor – in real time – all aspects of a customer’s complex material handling system. WHizard can be used to monitor equipment performance and productivity, to diagnose system problems, and to assist maintenance personnel in monitoring alarms and tracking spare parts. In addition, WHizard is browser based, allowing unlimited access to the tool. Any PC that can be part of the same network can view or use WHizard, as well as the Internet.

In addition to the wine and spirits industry, W&H supplies its products to wholesalers & retailers (handling both soft and hard goods); the direct -to-consumer industry (dotcom’s & catalog, one of which is a major shopping network);, third party logistic providers, parcel and postal work and other major companies involved with overnight shipping.

W&H’s ability to design systems that fulfill specific requirements is what has given the company its leadership stance in the industry. “We find the best mousetrap possible,” Betman points out. “Our systems provide a return on investment for retailers and others, which is usually two years or less. Our products provide space and personnel productivity improvement, offer ergonomic benefits, cutting down on workman’s comp claims.”

So in offering a total solution W&H not only talks the talk but walks the walk … and enables its customers operations to move smoothly in the process.

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