Pets at Home has experienced a period of accelerated growth. Its 2018 Christmas trading figures show a 6.3% increase in group revenue to £237.2m in comparison with the same period the previous year. Buoyant Christmas trading figures include a 5.5% growth in retail revenue to £213.4m, and the leading pet supplies retailer has also experienced a significant increase of 41.5% in online orders to £19m over the same period. To help manage this growth and ensure that deliveries directly to store and to customers weren’t impacted, Pets at Home looked at whether automation could support its warehouse operations.
Conveyor Networks has a long-standing relationship with Pets at Home, having worked on several projects including the implementation of a new controls system responsible for tote sortation at the retailer’s Stoke distribution centre last year. By replacing its ageing and costly Scada interface with warehouse control software, imio-MFC, Pets at Home is on track to make its money back within 18 months.
Following this success, Pets at Home commissioned Conveyor Networks to deliver the integration of a fully automated picking and packing solution at the business’ ecommerce distribution centre in Northampton. With objectives to digitise the business and become the specialist market leader for online pet care, Pets at Home needed to increase its output to facilitate its ambitious growth targets.
Conveyor Networks and imio Software Solutions were commissioned to improve the efficiency of online order picking and packing, particularly for prescription products such as pet medication. Until this point, a ‘suitably qualified person’ (SQP) was required to process orders of this nature, and the pet products retailer required a more efficient way to manage these orders and cater for increasing demand.
Additionally, with a high number of warehouses in close proximity to its ecommerce distribution centre, Pets at Home was also struggling to recruit, and in deploying new technology, hoped to overcome this requirement for temporary staff to cater for peak periods.
The first phase of the project focused on system process changes and mechanising the picking and packing process for the SQP orders. Pets at Home offers a subscription service, enabling customers to purchase a subscription to pet flea, tick and worm treatment, for example, and have this delivered to their door every month.
To maximise space and ensure additional control to normal stock, the SQP phase was implemented on a mezzanine floor and works independently to the rest of the warehouse. The subsystem includes; conveyor modules, packing machinery, automated label print and apply technology via the Nexus 20 from Cobalt Systems Ltd and auto reject functionality.
imio software now pre-validates all orders before they are packed. If an order passes auto-validation it will no longer need to be reviewed before it is shipped. If imio identifies errors, these will be highlighted and reviewed by an SQP colleague. Once reviewed, imio will auto-generate a customer email highlighting the issue and provide an accurate update. This system has significantly reduced the time taken to pack and ship orders, maximising staff productivity. It also ensures that the process is much safer through the introduction of hard errors, which guarantees the right product reaches the right customer at the right time.
Warehouse packing software imio-PACK has also been implemented to manage the interface between the PLC control system and the incumbent JDA WMS platform. This enables host system integration and has a simple user interface offering only a few options to make the process easier for the operator, allowing pack functions to be managed quickly and efficiently to drive a higher throughput. The solution, coupled with the conveyor system, has enhanced total throughput of the warehouse, enabling Pets at Home to handle more orders, reducing errors and ensuring high fulfilment accuracy. This SQP order process is unique to Pets at Home and the first type of automated prescription solution in the veterinary and pets pharma industries.
The next phase of the project aims to boost web orders and improve packing processes to increase throughout and accuracy throughout the rest of the warehouse. This will be driven using imio-MFC, to boost the units picked per hour, alongside imio-PACK applications, which will be deployed to tackle the various order streams such as eComm, uglies, wide aisle and SQP, to greatly improve the units per hour packed, per colleague.
As a result of the £3m project, Pets at Home is now able to cater for its growth in ecommerce parcel volumes and the Northampton DC is now also capable of supporting the group’s expansion plans of 100% growth in parcel volumes by financial year 2023.
SQP orders were previously handled manually, which proved to be time-consuming and required high levels of QC checking. By automating the process, Pets at Home is able to maintain a higher level of accuracy, user accountability and alleviate its staffing pressures. Alongside the cost savings on personnel, imio’s flexible software has saved the company thousands of pounds, negating the risk associated with complex changes to its existing WMS. In addition, the pet supplies retailer has been able to drive efficiencies across the warehouse and achieve greater productivity; throughput was increased by 300% within just a couple of months.
Terry Siddle, director of logistics and distribution at Pets at Home, commented, “Conveyor Networks has a breadth of experience, which meant we could design and implement a solution to select the right product, to meet this niche process. The SQP process that we have designed with this mechanisation is the only one in the industry that runs like this, ensuring we can operate with really high levels of efficiency and accuracy.”
Marcus Uprichard, sales director at Conveyor Networks commented, “This innovative solution highlights the importance of automation and technology in managing volumes of products through retail warehouses. The Pets at Home SQP solution is already delivering savings and efficiencies to meet demand now and into the future. The subscription medicines market is a key area of growth for us and we’re able to provide full turnkey solutions for retailers or pharmacists looking to automate this on line area of their business.”