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CIBA's 20/20 vision.

Highly automated distribution center doubles capacity to ship millions of contact lenses and keeps pace with growth.

Ever lose a contact lens? Or help someone search for one? Imagine then the task of finding and keeping track of 70 million contact lenses!

That's exactly the job given to an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) supported by other materials handling systems in the state-of-the-art Johns Greek Distribution (JCD) facility, a unit of CIBA Vision, in Duluth, Ga.

"Our new distribution system is highly automated," points out Dick Justin, project manager for CIBA Vision. Beyond the storage system, JCD also has automated its picking, replenishing, and full case packing operations as well as several specialized rack and tray receiving and handling systems, unique to its products.

The new JCD facility contrasts sharply with an old distribution system which was mostly manual, except for automated V-frame orderpicking. And this difference helps explain why JCD is so much more efficient now.

Productivity has zoomed upward with the new system. JCD's capacity to pick, to pack, and to ship products has more than doubled, says Justin.

CIBA Vision has installed a variety of materials handling and related technologies in the 143,000 square feet JCD facility. The expense has been cost justified, as Justin explains, by reducing overall labor costs.

From small startup to second in the world

Some twenty years ago, CIBA Vision began as a small startup firm. In 1980 it ranked 27th worldwide among makers of soft contact lenses, for example. Over two decades it has since grown to become the second largest firm in the world manufacturing and marketing lenses and lens care products. CIBA Vision is a thriving sector of Novartis AG, a Swiss healthcare company.

Last year, CIBA Vision acquired Wesley lessen, a manufacturer of specialty contact lenses.

That acquisition expanded the depth of products to be distributed from the Duluth facility, says Justin. CIBA Vision also has had continued growth in terms of new customers and in the average number of units per customer order, he adds.

The old JCD system wasn't capable of handling the projected volumes of products.

"We needed to develop a distribution system to handle volume increases and new product launches without adding additional labor or distribution space," says Justin. So he and the JCD operational team at CIBA Vision began in 1998 what would become a three-year project.

With the help of a systems integrator and technology supplier (SI Systems, a Paragon Technologies brand, 610-252-7321, the CIBA Vision team got much of the new JCD up and running in 1999. The system was completed earlier this year.

Design of the new system took more than a year out of the three years spent on the project. "JCD is a large, automated distribution center," says Justin. "It took a lot of time just to work out the timing issues involved in integrating the different subsystems together."

If JCD is big and complex, so too are some aspects of its business and how it thus serves customers.

JCD serves primarily as a regional warehouse to the Americas. The site also supplies inventory replenishment orders for other international affiliates in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific Rim.

There are millions and millions of small items to handle. Just within the AS/RS are some 70 million contact lenses or about 11 million distribution units. The total count of SKUs (stockkeeping units) at JCD is expected to quadruple with the integration of Wesley Jessen products into CIBA Vision.

These SKUs come in a wide range of package sizes: Single foil packs, vials, a variety of multi-pack cartons, and even some bundled lens care solutions.

Not surprisingly, then, the old, largely manual handling and picking system would have had difficulties processing orders in increasingly higher volumes. There was the existing V-frame picking system - which remains in the new JCDE, but has since been upgraded with new software and new interfaces with other automation. It had automated some 12% of the prior system.

Otherwise, picking and replenishing along with receiving and shipping were manual operations with some automatic data capture support in each operation from radio frequency data communication (RFDC) terminals and bar code scanners.

Now, however, more than 60% of orders are picked automatically. That percentage counts customer orders picked by the upgraded V-frame system and by another specialized automated system called P4.

A smooth flow of orders

Automation streamlines the flows of CIBA Vision products from receiving all the way through to shipping.

The majority of inbound products to JCD come from the nearby Johns Creek Manufacturing (JCM) facility. Many of the contact lenses made at JCM are placed in trays. These trays are then placed into racks and transported to JCD.

Next, an automated system unloads the racked trays at JCD. A unique bar code on each tray is scanned. This scanned information is married to data in JCD's warehouse management system. After the bar code is read and a tray is ready for staging, the tray is placed on a conveyor and sent to the AS/RS.

Reracking of empty trays is similarly automated. A re-racking automated system places racks of empty trays on takeaway conveyor.

These systems provide labor savings. With the automated deracking system coupled to the AS/RS, for example, receiving productivity for the new Focus DAILIES contact lens products has increased 75%, says JCD distribution manager Rob Nemchik.

Fast and slower movers

Moving received products and picked orders smoothly through JCD while accounting for differences in product velocities is vital. CIBA Vision classifies its SKUs by an A, B, C, and D system. A items are the fastest movers and D items the slowest. A items are staged mostly in the AS/RS, while B, C, and D items are held in a very-narrow-aisle (VNA) storage system.

The function of the AS/RS is to stage items in trays for orderpicking by the P4 automated system and to supply full trays of items going to automated full case assembly. The AS/RS is a totestacker type of miniload AS/RS. In contrast, the VNA system stages items in cartons for orderfilling by either the V-frame automated picker or by manual flow rack picking on a mezzanine. Included are vials, trial lenses, and multi-packs.

The freestanding AS/RS structure holds a lot of lenses and can move a lot of product quickly. Forward sections of the AS/RS stage the fastest moving SKUs for better S/R machine usage, while slower movers are more toward the rear. Better utilization of storage/staging areas in JCD was a factor in the choice of AS/RS technology.

The VNA area holds many B, C, and D SKUs, meantime, in corrugated cartons. Operators on orderpicker trucks equipped with RFDC terminals are instructed to manually pick and replenish this area.

As noted, the VNA system supplies products to a V-frame automated picking machine. Products to be picked are dispensed from channels in the machine onto a gathering belt conveyor. The picked items go into totes, which then are conveyed to packing.

In contrast, dispensing or picking of products from the P4 picking system is from vertically positioned trays of SKUs. Simply put, here's how the P4 unit works: A vertical tray is mounted above a conveyor belt. When a particular product is to be picked, the system dispenses that product from the tray onto the belt.

A very accurate system

"The automated system has allowed us to achieve inventory accuracy and order accuracy percentages that are both greater than 99%," says Nemchik. "As a result of this inventory accuracy and the speed with which we receive product we have been able to reduce inventory levels and increase customer satisfaction," he adds.

Where does CIBA Vision go from here? Justin and Kitty Murphy, who heads up North American distribution, are already thinking of the future. Murphy focuses on the need to find innovative, cost-effective ways to meet and exceed customer expectations. "The eyecare industry is very competitive," says Murphy. "We need to constantly challenge ourselves to improve. Celebrate our achievement and then attack the next challenge -- that's CIBA Vision's recipe for success."


CIBA Vision

Johns Creek Distribution Center

Duluth, Ga.

MISSION: Distribution of contact lenses and related products.

FACILITY SIZE: 143,000 square feet.



BAR CODE SCANNERS: Accu-Sort Systems, 800-BAR CODE, www.accusort

CONVEYORS: Ermanco, a Paragon Technologies brand, 231-798-4547,

FULL CASE PACKING SYSTEM: EMP Industries, 215-357-5333,

GANTRY REPLENISHMENT SYSTEM FOR P4 UNIT: SI Systems together with Automated Motion, 410-679-7902,

TOTES: Buckhorn, 800-543-4454,

TRAYS: ASK Plastics, 215-969-0800;

V-FRAME PICKING SYSTEM: Siemens ElectroCom, 800-322-8431 (With controls upgraded by SI Systems)
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Author:Feare, Tom
Publication:Modern Materials Handling
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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