For Columbia Sportswear Co., duplicating its U.S. warehouse management system (WMS) in Europe wasn't so tough. The hard part was getting a system that would conform to its unique needs in the first place.
Under the leadership of chairman Gert Boyle, the popular maker of active outdoor apparel has always carved its own path. One reason is the peculiarities of the business - highly seasonal, fashion-conscious, with a wide assortment of products. With its focus on "head-to-toe" merchandising, Columbia sells everything from down jackets to footwear.
Finally, there's the price of success to deal with. Rapid sales growth has taxed the limits of Columbia's supply network. Its main distribution center, the Rivergate facility near corporate headquarters in Portland, Ore., grew in four phases over seven years to its present size of around 820,000 square feet. That created problems with the company's old WMS, says Dave Carlson, corporate director of distribution.
The system simply wasn't fast enough to meet Columbia's needs for receiving, putaway and replenishment, says Carlson. It couldn't support a big enough picking area, or handle the large numbers of SKUs that flow through the facility.
For a new WMS at Rivergate, Columbia chose the PkMS package of Atlanta, Ga.-based Manhattan Associates. Having started out serving the apparel industry, Manhattan has deep experience in consumer goods, notes Carlson. In addition, its system was a good fit for Rivergate's highly automated, high-volume operation. It can pick by carton, scan and produce labels, and allocate items to the proper order. "They understand the business from the operations side," Carlson says.
Still, Manhattan faced some stiff challenges, in implementing PkMS at Rivergate. At the time, Columbia was doubling the size of its warehouse. It was also installing an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The result was a big change in picking and packing methods. Says Carlson: "Every job changed on the day we did the cut-over."
With a highly seasonal product, Columbia needed a highly flexible WMS - one that could handle variations in volumes and item size. (In the fall, for example, the company sells bulky down jackets.) Overall volumes at Rivergate are nearly 200,000 units a day, with a large number of individual piece picks.
The new system went live in April 1999. More recently, Columbia has faced a fresh task: implementing PkMS at its fast-growing distribution facilities in Europe.
The present setup involves two DCs in the Netherlands, one for apparel in Woedenberg, and the other for footwear in Almelo. The PkMS installations there went smoothly, without the need for major modifications in the U.S. system, says David Landau, director of product management for Manhattan Associates. And the results were quick to materialize. Carlson says the system reduced Columbia's operating costs in the Netherlands by 50 percent, versus an expected savings of 40 percent.
That was only the first stage of Manhattan's Europe project on behalf of Columbia. The two Dutch facilities, both run by a third-party logistics provider, are scheduled to be closed. They will be replaced by a single DC, operated by Columbia, in Cambrai, France.
Columbia is making the switch, and taking back direct control of distribution in Europe, because its third parties there couldn't handle the company's rapid growth and exacting business requirements. It chose Cambrai in northern France because that location offered the best mix of available labor, good transport infrastructure, proximity to markets, reasonable operating costs and a site big enough to support major expansion.
Landau says the PkMS setup in Cambrai will be "close to a mirror image" of the Oregon facility. Certain details will differ, labeling requirements and picking methods among them. Rivergate uses a large horizontal carousel, for example, while Cambrai will employ stacker cranes, which are cheaper in Europe. Strict French labor laws are an incentive to Columbia to minimize staffing through the use of automation.
There's still work to be done on the system, says Carlson. One priority is making it multilingual. In addition, Columbia must be able to support a new dynamic routing package acquired by one of its major customers, J.C. Penney Co. Inc. That system, says Landau, requires suppliers to pick, pack and stage orders before receiving shipping instructions from the end customer.
Carlson would like to see PkMS expanded to handle returns, and do more to eliminate scanning errors in the warehouse. At the same time, Columbia will be looking to install the system at new and expanded facilities, possibly another in the U.S. and one in Canada. Says Carlson: "We're trying to keep our systems as standardized as we can - and deploy them around the world as much as possible."
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