In today�s fast-paced, real-time environments where customers expect almost instantaneous delivery with 100% accuracy, optimizing demand execution processes is the name of the game. Successful parcel packing and shipping is all about no waiting, no complaints and no mistakes.
    But how do you match and even exceed these ever-increasing demands and challenges in your everyday operation? How do you ensure that your customer�s order of anything � from a prescription where an error can mean death to a blue dress for that very special occasion � doesn�t become a customer service nightmare for you and a nightmarish experience for your customer? And how do you do all of that while at the same time adhering to the complexities of both operational execution and carrier compliant requirements?
    Furthermore, how do you ensure you have the right operational components for your distribution processes to meet these challenges? Especially, how do you do it when your distribution enterprise includes diverse environments, multiple locations and ever-changing requirements?
    Happily, distribution professionals can now meet these challenges with a �mix and match� approach to technology and process components. They can select the necessary operational functions based on the unique needs of their distribution environments.
    Choosing the Right Methods
    Flexibility is an absolute necessity in today�s distribution environments. Parcel shippers face diverse requirements that can span an enterprise or be contained within a single facility. They need to face challenges of meeting the demands of single item and multi-item packaging and compliant shipping. On top of that, they need to sort through a lot of product offerings.
    Any solution chosen to work through these problems must include components that are able to mix the operational demands of diverse product offerings and distribution systems with specific operational requirements. There are point-of-pack documents, order verification, carrier requirements, fluctuating volumes� just to name a few!
    And of course, both the enterprise and individual facilities must run cost-effective systems besides assuring accuracy with every order. After-sale costs and negative customer experiences can be very expensive.
    The Carton-Processing Components
    Packing stations are used where order validation and accuracy are the keys to success and, sometimes, even a matter of life or death. At CaremarkRx, for example, handheld packing devices are used at its mail-order pharmacy fulfillment centers to double-check the accuracy of prescription orders before shipment occurs.
    Packing stations are also heavily used in e-commerce, traditional B2C (i.e.catalogers) and manufacturing environments. There, the challenges of fulfilling retailer�s and carrier�s stringent requirements (including EDI) are enormous. Typically, packing stations are used to create and pack shippable units, verify order content, print packing lists, invoices, gift cards, pricing tickets and shipping labels. Some industries require special processing during packing such as gift-wrap instructions, credit card validations and special labeling requirements. Packing stations are usually configured with a workstation, scanner, scale and label printer(s).
    An example is the Shane Company, one of the country�s most respected direct diamond importers and premier jewelry retailers. Shane uses packing stations to ensure that the customer�s Web order is executed in a manner that builds customer confidence � essential in this high-end industry. Here, packing stations not only ensure order accuracy but they even display gift wrap instructions. The packing stations can also print appraisal documentation and gift cards for the consumer. Finally, the packing station can send credit card authorization information for immediate funds transfer � at the ship point.
    At Eckerd Corporation, the nation�s third largest retail drugstore chain, packing stations are used as quality control points. They verify the accuracy of Web-based orders before shipment occurs, helping to spur repeat business. The company has incorporated the packing function into its componentized distribution system including verification and audit functions.
    Packing stations at any facility must be built for speed and ease of use. Graphical user interfaces (GUI) and screen indicators walk the operator through the packing process without thought. Packing stations can also be configured to run as returns stations. Training on the GUI is minimal because the packing and returns interfaces are nearly identical.
    Using packing stations to ensure order accuracy means fewer service calls, a reduction in returns, a higher level of customer confidence and, hopefully, the elimination of human error to provide the perfect shopping experience.
    Automated Induction
    Automated induction lines are traditionally found in high volume distribution environments. The lines are set up to feed conveyor sortation, tilt-tray devices, busy outbound staging areas or direct trailer loads. At automated induction lines, shippable containers are conveyed over a scanner and scale, thus capturing data like carton number, destination ZIP Code, weight and SKU. No shipping label is printed and no operator is in routine attendance. When combined with a sortation device, discrepancies can be systematically rejected and sent to exception lanes for further processing at manual induction stations.
    Bear Creek, better known as Harry and David, is one of the nation�s highest volume shippers during the Christmas season. Bear Creek batches and runs orders on a series of automated induction lines equipped with built-in conveyors and in-motion scales. The auto-mated lines feed trailers and outbound staging areas. The same componentized automated induction process is used in remote and temporary agricultural distribution sites.
    Manual Induction
    Manual induction is used as a component in distribution environments where ship volumes are relatively low and product types being shipped are single SKU, so no packing is required. However, manual induction stations are also used at high-volume facilities to handle exceptions�processing conditions like jackpots, delivery method changes, cross docks, ship to address changes or to process non-conveyable packages. Manual stations usually consist of a workstation, scanner, scale and label printer. Here, operators manually scan the package barcode, determine the method of shipment and affix or verify a shipping label. These containers are then moved directly into outbound trailers or staged for later loading.
    Print and Apply         
    In a print and apply process, shipping containers move over conveyors where scanners and scales capture and validate carton data including product ID or carton ID. Printer applicators then print and apply shipping labels based on order data and business rules. The containers are then automatically routed using automated sortation or manually placed in a staging area or outbound trailer.
    Automated Sortation 
    With automated conveyor sortation processes, conveyable shipping containers are processed for shipping and then automatically routed to sort locations based on delivery method, carrier, weight, etc. Inline scanners and scales capture carton information automatically during processing. Automated sortation systems are heavily used in the fulfillment/third party logistics provider�s environments. At Quebecor World, a third-party sortation, manifest and distribution service for book publishers, automated induction and sortation equipment is used to ship as many as 130,000 items a day to bulk mail centers and delivery services. Through a series of automated lines, batches of product are weighed, scanned and conveyed through an automated re-circulating tilt-tray sortation system. Exception stations are used to handle jackpot and non-conveyables.
    Eddie Bauer/Spiegel, two of the largest retailers in the nation, fulfill out of a single warehouse in Columbus, Ohio. The solution to their volume shipping needs incorporates a high-throughput sortation control application that manages over 24 miles of conveyor system. The sortation device diverts packages to staging locations or directly into trailers. Their sortation control system provides a multi-threaded solution, which increased Eddie Bauer/Spiegel�s ability to ship over 480,000 units in a single day.
    Audit Station 
    An audit station is used at any point in the shipment process (pre-or post-manifest) where a supervisor wants to verify the accuracy of the manifest and/or sortation applications. An audit processing station enables shippers to review shippable units and verify that the carton information actually matches the information recorded during the induction, sortation and manifesting processes. Audit stations can also complete the daily audits and reports needed by facility and carrier personnel.
    Mixing and Matching Solution Components
    These components can be mixed and matched within each facility or workgroup within the facility. Mixing and matching requires the ability to move components to the most effective point for that function within the workflow. This will provide the highest level of flexibility, the least amount of labor and most accurate execution of each operational work point.
    Examples of mixing and matching operational solution components abound. They can cover setting up pick-to-pack or batch pick-to-pack environments, using single order picking with pack verification, batch picking with a de-consolidation or order verification environment � and have all of these combinations ending with parcel carrier compliant shipping.
    Tying It All Together
    No matter how well you mix and match your operational components, no solution will be effective unless it incorporates data from upstream information systems to drive the fulfillment and facility levels.
    Today�s complex carrier and customer requirements as well as busi-ness rules demand uniformity on an enterprise level and flexibility on a facility level. Your distribution processes must have the ability to communicate via standard interfaces with ERPs and MRPs, existing in-house host systems and carrier compliance systems.
    No matter what approach you use to interface with the upstream systems, your ability to apply these data sets will determine both the effectiveness of your components and features of a componentized system.
    John Dalton is CEO of ScanData Systems. You can reach ScanData by calling 614-766-6622.