Textbook Technology

By Joe Steffney and Rich Eby Print this article Print

Cengage Learning uses information technology to turn its textbook distribution center into a model of operational efficiency.

By Joe Steffney and Rich Eby

Each year, 250 employees at the massive Cengage Learning Distribution Center (CLDC) near Independence, Ky., ship 63 million parcels containing textbooks and other learning materials to customers around the globe. This facility is owned and operated by Cengage Learning, the United States’ second-largest higher-education textbook company, with annual revenues of approximately $2 billion.

A decade ago, 300 employees working at full capacity in this same warehouse could ship only 50 million units annually— and with lower levels of efficiency and customer satisfaction. What accounts for the dramatic improvement?  Technology.

With the implementation of highly customizable warehouse management, voice direction and conveyer systems, we have transformed our 835,000-square-foot CLDC into a model of productivity and cost savings—savings we ultimately pass on to our customers.

Logistics and Labor

Cengage Learning purchases educational materials from suppliers all over the world. Many of these materials arrive in print form at the CLDC, where they are stored until being shipped out to our customers. Today, we store roughly 81 million textbooks at our distribution center.

When Cengage Learning opened this facility roughly 10 years ago, we knew we would need a warehouse management system that would continuously track the location and status of every textbook in the warehouse, which at that time totaled 60 million. In addition to inventory control, the system would need to provide a robust freight rating functionality to calculate the absolute lowest shipping cost for each parcel. Finally, it would have to be able to calculate how much labor would be required to ship each day’s orders efficiently and on time.

After reviewing several warehouse management solutions, we chose Logistics PRO, which is now offered by Manhattan Associates as part of a solution called Warehouse Management System.  As books enter the CLDC, Logistics PRO records their dimensions and assigns them for storage to their proper location in the building. When customers place orders for books, the system calculates how to pack the books in shipping boxes in the most efficient manner, and then calculates the best way to pack the boxes on the trucks that take the parcels from the facility.

Voice Direction From Jennifer

Logistics PRO feeds its calculations into a voice-directed picking system called Jennifer Voice Plus, from Lucas Systems. The Jennifer system translates the information into spoken directions—how many books to pick, where to ship them, how to pack the box—and feeds them to warehouse workers wearing headsets.

The primary advantage of Jennifer is that it creates a hands-free operation. Our workers no longer need to carry a bar-code scanner, and they’re free to use both hands to select and pack books for shipment. Jennifer guides them, very precisely, through their workday.

This system has had a noticeable effect on our entire shipping operation. Per-unit shipping costs have gone down, while outbound quality has increased. Workers make fewer mistakes and work more efficiently.

Within a year of Jennifer’s implementation, productivity had increased by 20 percent. The system also reduces training times for new and temporary workers from an average of four days to just four hours. We are now developing plans to use the Jennifer system in other parts of the shipping operation as well.

Working on the Fast Track

The cartilage that ties our shipping process together is a high-speed package-conveying system by Automotion Conveyors. It enables employees to move boxes of books—many of them quite heavy—from disparate points in the warehouse without injuring themselves. Since installing this conveyer system 10 years ago, our OSHA record has been nearly perfect.

Eight miles of conveyer track connect to a 600-foot long, high-speed sorter that funnels 130 units per minute into one of 36 diversion lanes. Workers on these lanes—all listening to instructions from Jennifer—sort, pick, pack and ship 100,000 custom orders each day. These learning materials often go from a storage shelf in the Cengage Learning warehouse to a customer’s mailbox in 24 hours.

Our warehouse management, voice direction and conveyer systems have changed the way we work—and the way our customers view their interactions with Cengage Learning. Beyond their immediate benefits, however, these flexible tools also support our company’s long-term growth strategy.

Cengage Learning acquired Houghton Mifflin’s College Division in 2007; in 2011, it acquired National Geographic Society’s digital and print school publishing unit. As shipping demands increase through future growth and acquisition, our company will be able to ramp-up output significantly without incurring greater overhead costs or sacrificing the high-level quality that defines our customer service operations.

Joe Steffney is senior vice president, Global Distribution, and Rich Eby serves as vice president, Distribution/Engineering, at Cengage Learning.  

This article was originally published on 2012-05-08
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