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January 01, 2010

Working Smart

The Music of USANA’s New Shipping Line

by David Baker

When it kicks on, you can tell.

Before, there is only silence. Silver rollers lay dormant. Boxes sit frozen on a long blue track. Computers blink as the circuitry stays in a holding pattern. Products remain tucked together on racks of pallets. There’s a hush over the 20,000 square feet of smooth concrete where USANA’s new shipping line lies in waiting—primed, ready.

But when it kicks on, you can really hear it—a regular shipping symphony.

That same 20,000 square feet of smooth concrete is filled with the din of motion—progress. Silver rollers whir, moving reanimated boxes around their blue course. Products rattle into a new home—cozying up to one another inside once-empty boxes. There’s the whoosh of air compressors and the thud of information being stamped on boxes.

But all the commotion, the aural assault of mechanized motion, is just cheap background noise without one little sticker.

Starting in August 2008, USANA Health Science’s shipping line moved from a manual process to a computerized system driven by barcodes. Imprinted in those bars and spaces, USANA has found the key to efficiency in nearly every aspect of their shipping operation.

“Our last system was all paper,” says Jim Brown, USANA’s Vice President of Operations, and the man in charge of this line and all these boxes. “There were no barcodes. There was no tracking. But there’s a lot more visibility in our new system. Now, it’s easy to keep track of everything going on as an order moves through the shipping line.”

The barcode is the sheet music—the notes, rests, time signature—of an order. The vast amount of information contained in that imprint determines everything about a given order: what products it will contain; the course its journey will take as it moves through the line; who was involved in it.

And if the barcode is the sheet music, the computer system is the maestro, quietly conducting the whole operation—reading, guiding, managing each of the unique product pieces that make up the whole, and controlling the order as it moves through the line. Working in combination, this new barcode-driven computer system acts like a gentle hand, moving the process along, nudging boxes where they need to go, when they need to go there, and filling orders in the most efficient, accurate manner possible.

UsanaHitting All the Right Notes

Over the cacophony of the line, Brown said this new packing and shipping engine churns out a total run of 9,000–10,000 orders a day, and it is capable of reaching 25,000 packages filled, sealed and ready to ship every day.

Here’s where the efficiency part comes in: Instead of running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the new shipping line only needs two eight-hour shifts, five days a week, to turn out more than 9,000 packages a day. Now, that din of motion can only be heard from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday.

“We’ve been able to increase our shipping capacity 300 percent while cutting our labor,” Brown says. “Besides capacity, labor hours were a big concern. This system has more efficiency, because there’s less waiting. So, we’ve been able to reduce the amount of employees on the line by half. That allowed us to send those extra employees to other departments throughout the company.”

Monitoring how long the shipping line is running every day is only the most obvious indication of the new system’s efficiency. If you look closely, there are more efficiencies hidden throughout the processes of this new shipping line that save time, money and manpower.

You’ll find it in the new way they make boxes—running in waves with different box sizes made 1,000 at a time—which saves them from setting up the machine to run only a few boxes. It’s in a computer system that can adjust to factors such as the number of employees working the line and can help decide the shipping method best suited for each box. You find it in the way the computer brain sorts packing slips by box size and product type. It’s in the picking zones, where the fastest-moving products are at the front. You’ll certainly find it in the small line USANA installed in July 2009 that handles orders of four items or less, which, according to Brown, accounts for roughly half the packages USANA sends out the door.

Pitch Perfect

But efficiency isn’t the only gift the new barcode-driven system has given to USANA. They’ve also been able to improve the accuracy of their picking. Brown says they’ve hit an astronomical 99.9 percent picking accuracy. This kind of accuracy can be attributed to several different things built in the system.

As a box hits one of the two new picking lines, the employee assigned to pull product for the picking zone is helped by a system of lights guided by the system’s invisible hand. The computer reads the order’s barcode and relays a simple message in colored lights to the picker. Each product bin has a green and red light above it. And then it’s as simple as green meaning go, and red signaling stop. When the right product is in the right bins, it is virtually impossible for an employee to pull the wrong thing. “With only half a day of training, we can have new people on the line picking product,” Brown says.

Several checks in the system ensure accuracy. A box will run through eight computerized scans on its journey through USANA’s shipping line. Many of these help guide the box to where it needs to be, while others are simply there for quality-control purposes.

Near the end of an order’s journey, a weighing station determines if the box falls within a tolerance for weight. Since the barcode contains all the information about what this particular box should contain, the computer is able to calculate the weight a box ought to be. If it’s within a predetermined tolerance, it heads down the silver rollers that lead to the finish line. But if it doesn’t meet the standard, the box is sent to quality control for inspection.

You don’t accomplish near-perfect accuracy without a way to check your progress. As with the products that USANA manufactures, strict quality control plays an important role on the shipping line. Besides the boxes that don’t fall within tolerance, 5 percent of all orders are run through a quality-control check, where they’re tested and verified one last time before they’re sent out to customers.

The “Who” portion of the barcode’s “Who? What? When? Where?” information makes it possible to pull 5 to 10 percent of orders filled by a new employee as a means of training—something Brown says not only helps improve USANA’s ability to train new employees, but also overall accuracy and efficiency.

BarcodeNatural Harmonics

This new line has also turned USANA’s shipping operations a healthy shade of green.

People everywhere are doing their part to preserve the planet for future generations. Some are turning off lights. Some are recycling. Some are eliminating waste. The new system has allowed USANA to do all of those.

Improved efficiency means they need less power to achieve an even greater level of productivity. So USANA is able to “turn the shipping line’s lights off” on the weekends. Brown said the company has also switched to biodegradable packaging and allows customers to opt out of a packing slip, which they can now view online. USANA now uses bleach-free boxes, containing more than 30 percent recycled materials, and padded envelopes for small orders. The company has also done away with extraneous packing material to cut out waste. All these are steps toward lessening USANA’s impact on the environment.

And all of it—the efficiency, accuracy, energy savings—is made possible by those bars and spaces on that one little sticker.

When the USANA shipping line kicks on, you can tell.

As always, there’s the clamor of motion from the same 20,000 square feet of concrete. Rollers clunking boxes from station to station. The low beeping of scanners. Whirring fans. Whooshing air compressors. A rustling of packing material being stuffed into product-filled boxes. But now, the computers and barcodes of USANA’s new shipping system have turned that din of machinery into a flawlessly executed song of progress.

David Baker is a writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. A former meat cutter and proud holder of a college degree in print journalism from Utah State University, Baker now composes all manner of clauses, sentences and paragraphs for USANA Health Sciences.