An "uptick" in business experienced by Rochester Drug Cooperative convinced the company of the need to embrace automation and robotics to improve its order-fulfillment processes, according to director of operations Gary Ritzmann.
SCB: Tell me about Rochester Drug Cooperative.
Ritzmann: We are a pharmaceutical wholesaler. We distribute pharmaceutical and OTC products to about 1,500 customers in the Northeast. We have two distribution facilities, one at our headquarters in Rochester, New York, and another in northern New Jersey.
SCB: How long have you been in business?
Ritzmann: 114 years.
SCB: What was the challenge that led to your embrace of the use of robotics?
Ritzmann: We had a uptick in business, and before we opened our second distribution center, we had labor challenges. Our customers order from us during the day. We pick, pack, and ship overnight and deliver next day. So we had 40 to 45 people working a 5:30 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. picking shift, and we had a lot of turnover.
SCB: What did you think at that point might be the solution? How did approach the issue of what to do?
Ritzmann: It was basically on a whim. Our CEO at the time was wishing that somebody would build a robot that could help us pick orders at night. Circumstances led us to IAM Robotics, and one thing led to another, and we wound up buying the two robots that are in operation today.
SCB: Why IAM Robotics, as opposed to the many other vendors out there?
Ritzmann: This was over four years ago, so there weren't many other vendors at the time. It was a proof of concept for them, and a pilot project for us.
SCB: What did you want this robot to do, exactly?
Ritzmann: Basically, not replace people, but allow us to move people and let them do other things that are revenue-generating. Cut down on injuries, increase performance by the pickers.
SCB: You were taking a chance on this technology, right?
Ritzmann: We certainly were — it was the so-called bleeding edge. It took us almost two years before we had a finished product and put it in operation.
SCB: What was involved in the implementation?
Ritzmann: They built us a prototype, and brought it to our facility in November of 2014. It picked up maybe 30, 40 products in a short period of time. Just to test that it could actually move up and down the isles, pick product, and drop it into a shipping tote. From there we put a contract together. It was a good year and a half before they brought the production version into our facility. We tested over four or five months during the daytime, not during production, just test picks and orders from two days ago. We had to put it through its paces before we integrated it into our production facility.
SCB: What was involved in training the people onsite?
Ritzmann: The hard part was getting people to believe that they weren’t all going to get fired and replaced by robots. Also that this wasn’t a fad — that after six months it wouldn’t go away and we’d try something different.
SCB: What’s the role of people in the warehouse now?
Ritzmann: They're still doing picking during the night, but they don't have to travel as far. Their scope has shrunk a little bit, and it saves wear and tear on them.
SCB: Has it changed your stocking strategies — how much you keep in the warehouse, and where you put things?
Ritzmann: Not how many, but how we stock it. We have to do a little more work on the front end to make the product presentable for the robot to pick. To be honest with you, it's really best practice anyway, whether a robot or a person is picking it.
SCB: Any surprises along the way in implementation? Any lessons learned that you hadn't anticipated?
Ritzmann: Upfront, to communicate a little better with the people who think they're going to lose their jobs. As much as we tried to, it still wasn't enough. They were surprised, but in reality nobody really lost their jobs. We did lose some people, but basically just through attrition. Nobody got fired or anything like that.
SCB: What benefits have you realized as a result of implementing this system?
Ritzmann: The design does work. It’s just as accurate and as fast as our human pickers are. The benefits are that you don't have to wear out your warehouse operators. There were cases where they were walking four to eight miles a night, picking product off the shelves.
SCB: Do you see more automation in your future?
Ritzmann: Yes, definitely. We want to integrate the robots into our conveyor system, to automatically load shipping totes on and off of the robot. That's the next step for us.
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