Amazon is growing on-demand services after reporting a 20% sales increase in 2015.
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The introduction of web technology has made it possible to integrate and streamline its entire fulfillment system, from orders taken through its home-grown order-entry system to the pick-orders handled by warehouse workers and the shipping forms given to carriers.
Quill built its own order-entry system about 12 years ago, basing it on what Morse calls a “heavy iron mainframe” that relied on a lot of manual data entry and didn’t offer much in the way of multiple application integration or ease of access to information. A few years later it switched to a Microsoft NT platform with an NT SQL server, then began incorporating web-based technology that made it possible for managers and customer service reps to quickly check inventory, such as which ink toners were available for particular types of printers.
Web technology, including XML and other parts of web services, also enabled the order-entry system to integrate with Quill’s warehouse management system, so that the warehouse system prints out pick-to-order documents for warehouse workers. “It provides the information pick workers need on where to go in the warehouse and what to pick,” Morse says. Quill uses the PKMS warehouse management system from Manhattan Associates.
It’s about time
Quill’s integrated systems make it possible to shorten the entire cycle time from order to ship, a key metric of performance, Morse says. “It’s all about cycle time, and what helps that is information,” he says.
Operating on a corporate intranet that allows universal browser access to information about orders, inventory and even warehouse staffing levels, the system lets Quill managers better respond to changes in order volume. By analyzing order history and comparing that to daily order flow, Quill can better prepare for each day’s order activity, Morse says. “If we get most orders between 3:30 and 6 p.m. and we get real-time information on order flow, we can see how many orders we’ve had at any given time and how many more we’re expecting,” he says.
The Quill order and fulfillment system uses a form of distributed order management, which fulfills orders based on the most efficient means available through a network of distribution centers and other sources. It is designed with mathematical algorithms and business rules that combine with information on each distribution center’s inventory availability to automatically determine how each order should be fulfilled. “The system does a lot of sorts,” Morse says. “A lot of algorithms pick the right DC and carrier for the right order.”
The system may determine, for example, that of 10 items in a single order, eight should get fulfilled from one distribution center, but two from another to produce the shortest and fastest delivery times between distribution center and destination. “If we get an order from California, the order will get routed to the right DC for that area, then routed to the carrier we’ve chosen for that part of the country,” Morse says, adding that Quill is also integrated with some Staples fulfillment facilities for inventory back-up.
Before XML and other forms of web services technology provided for automated data integration between the order entry system and warehouse management, Quill’s order-management employees would manually review orders and decide how to route them to distribution centers and carriers-a process that could take a full day, Morse says. “Now the system does it instantaneously and well within an hour or even within minutes, a pick order is printed on a loading dock,” he says.
The system also drills down to the best order-picking routes within each distribution center, saving pick workers time by showing the best route within a distribution center to locate each item in an order. “It gives workers the information they need, where to go and what to pick in the most efficient way,” Morse says.
With all the help web technology has provided, Quill has not become overly reliant on technology, Morse says. “We’re not into robots or pick-to-light systems,” he says. “We’re not looking to invest in technology for technology’s sake.”
Indeed, Quill still relies on teamwork and manual oversight to provide assurance that orders are properly fulfilled. Every item that’s picked is double checked by a second person, and another employee checks that boxes are properly and neatly packed. “It works well for us,” Morse says.
The mixture of employee processes and web-based technology, he adds, gives Quill the edge it needs to compete in its market by fulfilling orders according to today’s customer expectations. All that matters, however, is that customers know they can place orders and get quick, accurate deliveries, he says.
“Our customers don’t care about our fulfillment technology,” Morse says. “All they care about is their ability to order something today and get it tomorrow.”
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