Super-fast Fulfillment


By Merrill Douglas | Inbound logistics

When it comes to ASAP, quick-thinking shippers redefine what’s possible.

In a world where everyone wants everything yesterday, long lead times are a luxury most shippers can’t afford. Amazon continues to set the standard for the “fast” in fast fulfillment, promising to deliver the goods in as little as one hour to customers who pay for the privilege (see sidebar, p. 44). Few companies push the odometer that hard, but many are deploying strategies to speed product to customers as soon as possible. Many of those strategies begin in the warehouse.

Here’s a look at what some shippers are doing to turbocharge their fulfillment operations.


When your product emerges hot from the oven each day, speed to market is crucial. That’s why Warburtons, the United Kingdom’s largest bakery brand, uses route optimization and vehicle tracking technology to ensure its products arrive on customers’ store shelves according to schedule.

[blockquote style=”1″]We have a fast-moving supply chain,” says Jim Norton, distribution planning manager atWarburtons in Bolton, U.K. “To produce products that are fresh for customers the next day, we have to start manufacturing before orders are confirmed, which results in a dynamic route to market. On-time delivery is a critical customer service metric for Warburtons. We have to get product on the shelves before people want to buy it, Norton says.[/blockquote]

Warburtons’ distribution network encompasses 24 locations across England and Scotland; 11 of those are production facilities with distribution centers (DCs) attached. The other 13 are freestanding DCs. Warburtons’ trucks move product among the facilities, and from the DCs to customers’ retail stores.

Since 2005, Warburtons has used Paragon Software Systems’ Multi-Depot optimization software to plan efficient delivery routes. (Paragon is based in Dorking, U.K., with a U.S. office in Frisco, Texas.) In 2011, Warburtons began installing GPS-based tracking and communications units from Navman Wireless, Glenview, Ill., on its 800 trucks. Paragon’sFleet Controller software connects the Navman units to the route optimization system, letting managers see how well drivers are following their routes and hitting their delivery targets.

The software resides on a server in Warburtons’ headquarters. Managers there and in the DC use the technology to monitor the progress of deliveries in real time. When a problem occurs, this visibility allows for an immediate response.

[blockquote style=”1″]If we’re suffering delays, we might choose to reroute a driver, Norton says. If a truck breaks down, a manager can dispatch other drivers in the area to pick up its product and make its deliveries. In the past, we probably would have waited until the vehicles came back to the depot before sending them out again, he adds. Data from the Navman units helps Warburtons design better delivery routes for the future. “We can easily transfer all the data we collect to our strategic Paragon system for off-line planning what-ifs and other kinds of scenarios, Norton says.[/blockquote]

Warburtons finished rolling out the Navman system to its entire fleet in 2014. Working in conjunction with Paragon’s software, the onboard units have helped the company fulfill customers’ orders faster and more efficiently. “We’ve improved on-time delivery over the past year by between five and 10 percent,”


MSC Industrial Supply puts such a premium on speed, it promises same-day shipping on all orders placed by 8 p.m. EST.

With that guarantee, fast operations are crucial for MSC, a distributor of products for metalworking and maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO), based in Melville, N.Y. Among its fast-fulfillment strategies is an automated packaging optimization solution, which MSC implemented in 2011 in one of its DCs near Harrisburg, Pa.

MSC sells nearly one million stockkeeping units (SKUs), which makes packaging a challenge. When packing an order, an associate used to choose from among approximately 27 different box sizes. Box size matters because carriers price package shipments by dimension as well as weight.

“We had a huge baker’s cart with all the different box sizes,” recalls Jeff Reagan, MSC’s vice president of supply chain engineering and acquisition integration. Choosing the right box was a matter of trial and error. Once associates made a decision and packed the product, they performed several other steps—inserting marketing materials and a comment card, adding dunnage, sealing the box, and printing and attaching a packing slip.

Hoping to boost productivity, better protect its product in transit, and reduce dunnage, MSC worked with its supply chain consultant, Fortna, based in West Reading, Pa., and the French warehouse automation company Savoye. Together, they developed a custom-made, automated packaging system.

Today, a packer chooses from among just six styles of half-box small, medium, or large, and either short or tall. With the product inside, the box moves on a conveyor to a sorting system, which sends small boxes in one direction, medium ones in a second, and large ones in a third.

From there, machines scan a barcode on each box to get details about the order, add collateral and one air pillow, cut the box to the precise height needed, and then add and adhere a carton top. “When the box comes out the other side, the system does a top application of the shipping label and a side or top application of the packing slip,” Reagan says.