Inside Logistics

Turning the page

The storybook transformation of Scholastic Canada’s DC

December 20, 2008
by Deborah Aarts

Once upon a time there was an educational book supplier that had reached the limit in its distribution capacity. The evil foes of obsolescence and inflexibility reared their ugly heads. Along came a dashing new picking system and, thanks to clever planning and smart equipment, order was restored to the operation. Deborah Aarts tells the tale.

Today, across Canada, hundreds of thousands of children are reading books from Scholastic Canada Ltd. The educational publisher has become synonymous with youth literacy, in large part due to its popular direct-to-school book club order program. Every year, it ships millions of books to classrooms from Victoria to St John’s.

Most of those books move through a facility in Markham, Ontario. Not long ago, the 170,000sqf distribution centre was struggling to keep up with a steady increase in both the volume and variety of SKUs. A series of temporary solutions—including equipment add-ons and expensive overtime—were enough to keep the operation running, but the company knew a total overhaul was required.

Here’s the story of how they did it.

Chapter one: The great capacity crunch
Scholastic runs a unique business. The Markham facility exists to support its book club and catalogue operations, which promotes a fresh slate of titles every month for students to choose from. Its picking area is thus populated by a constantly changing flow of books and learning accessories, as last month’s World War I storybooks must give way to this month’s Christmas titles.

The company feeds these shifting cycles from bays of tall racking on the building’s western half, where pallets and cartons of books are kept until they are pulled down for their seasonal spikes.

The DC’s old order-picking and staging system was installed when it opened in 1998, and it was considered quite high-tech at the time. Paperless order induction, pick-to-light capabilities and some automated conveyance made the process reasonably quick and efficient. Operators were picking into totes, so they had to re-pack and label all shipments by hand after picking, but the technology supporting them tended to work well.

Problems started to arise when the business grew. When the 1998 installation went live, the facility was processing more than 735,000 orders—nearly 8.7 million items—every year. But by 2006, that amount had mushroomed to more than 1,527,000 orders and upwards of 12 million items—increases of 108 and 39 percent, respectively. In short, there were many more shipments to get out, and they were smaller and more frequent than before.