For a garment distribution operation, the size of your warehouse is all-important, according to Result’s David Sanders-Smith, who took Images on a guided tour of the company’s new 228,000 square foot distribution centre in Beccles, Suffolk
Heading north on the A12 through Suffolk, you have a sense that this is a land that time not so much forgot as overlooked a little. Tea shops and potteries and quaint cottages nestle on the green coastal carpet that stretches east towards the North Sea and west towards Cambridgeshire and on to the southern reaches of the Midlands beyond. Just before the turn off for the A145 you pass the Walberswick Nature Reserve where reed is still harvested, as it has been for centuries, for thatching the roofs of the local houses.
Continue driving along the A145 for 30 minutes and you reach the Beccles Business Park at Ellough. Dominating the park and the surrounding countryside is the new Result Clothing distribution centre (DC). Stepping through the front doors into this cavernous space, the contrast between the sleepy agrarian world outside and the hi-tech, computer-controlled, automated environment inside couldn’t be more marked.
Result purchased the new unit last year and has been fully operational on the site since October 2015. The purchase has been described as the biggest warehouse deal in the East Anglian commercial property market for many years and yet it was less than a day away from never happening.
The deal that nearly never was
The company had outgrown its warehouse at Earls Colne, Essex, and David Sanders-Smith, MD, recognised that a move to larger premises was essential for the continued growth of both the Result and Spiro brands. By chance he happened to spot an advertisement for the Beccles building in a local property paper and realised it would fit the company’s needs perfectly. Unfortunately, when David contacted the agents he learned that an offer had already been accepted. Disappointed but undeterred, Result moved on and found some land in Essex and started the lengthy process of planning a new-build warehouse. The day before the contract for the purchase of the land was due to be signed, however, the Beccles agents contacted David: the prospective buyers had pulled out and they wanted to know whether Result was still in the market for a new DC and might still be interested in the north Suffolk facility. Director, Sara Sanders-Smith points out that had the call come just a day later after the contracts on the Essex land had already signed, Result would now still be at least a year away from occupying a new distribution centre due to the complexity and logistics of a commercial new-build project.
The main building on the 14.5-acre site extends to 228,000 sq ft, and includes mezzanine levels and office suites. It was purpose-built on the site of a World War II airfield in 2007 for a national chain of toy and novelty gift stores. The toy company may have moved away, but its experienced warehouse general manager, David Eyres, stayed on and now heads up the warehouse operations for Result. He recalls the previous owners employing up to 75 warehouse staff and 400 sales staff on-site during peak periods. Result, by contrast, runs its entire distribution operation with a regular staff of 12. Given the sheer size of the premises and the scale of Result’s international distribution operation, it doesn’t seem possible… until you see the warehouse team in action.
Wristbands and finger swiping
The level of automation is remarkable. Containers jammed with cartons of product are delivered by articulated lorry via the nearby Felixstowe port. The cartons are offloaded onto a newly installed conveyor system, and pass through an automated scanning system. This reads the barcode on the cartons and generates a new Result barcode and sticker, which is automatically applied as the carton travels along the rollers. The cartons are then weighed automatically, on a pressure sensitive belt, to confirm that they contain the correct number of garments. All the information is fed into the warehouse’s central computer system. Once on the system, the boxes are then stored at random locations on the towering warehouse racking (or, if they are fast moving goods, on the warehouse floor in the despatch area). At first sight, the set-up will be familiar to anyone who has visited a modern garment distribution centre in the western world. And then you’re introduced to the intelligent order picking system, at which point everything gets a bit sci-fi.
Each member of the warehouse team wears a wristband housing finger swipe barcode technology that is connected wirelessly to the central computer system. The team members move around the warehouse picking cartons and making up the orders that will be despatched to Result’s network of European distributors: as they do so, the computer tracks their movements and whereabouts. If they are picking in a location and the computer detects that cartons in that same location are required for another order, it will alert the warehouse staff via the wristband so that they can pick the cartons for both orders. The extra cartons are then stored temporarily at the end of the aisle ready for another team member to collect for their order. It’s fast, efficient and goes some way to explaining how such a huge operation can be run on a seemingly skeleton staff, yet still deliver significantly faster order processing than before.
The computer monitoring of staff movements is also helpful in terms of team motivation, training and development, David Eyres explains. For example, if a member of staff is performing slowly or is clearly struggling in a certain area, they can be offered extra training and assistance to bring them back up to speed. Conversely, it is possible to identify a team member who is consistently excelling and earmark them for fast track development and greater responsibility.
Also contributing to the efficiency of the operations is state of the art plant and equipment, including energy efficient VNA counterbalance forklifts, powered pallet trucks and high reach fork trucks. The latter use an automated guidance system any time they are operated between aisles of racking for maximum safety. David Eyres adds that safety is paramount in the warehouse and even extends to the operators of the high reach trucks receiving abseiling training so that in the unlikely event that they ever find themselves stranded 10 metres above the warehouse floor, they are able to make a manual descent.
As well as safety, the new warehouse is geared up for maximum energy efficiency: it is fitted with solar panels and uses a motion sensor lighting system to limit lighting to only those areas within which team members are operating. (During Images’s visit contractors were on site to look at rationalising the overall number of lights and at the installation of low-powered LED bulbs to reduce energy consumption even further).
Oddly, it is the top mezzanine floor that provides a clear perception of the scale of the new facility. Devoid of racking and boxes, it resembles an empty car park and hints at the potential further expansion that is open to Result. The opportunity to expand isn’t limited to the inside of the warehouse, however; there is massive scope for new-build development on the 14.5-acre site. To all intents and purposes this gives Result unlimited storage and distribution space, which is good news for the company and its customers, according to David Sanders-Smith.
In the December issue of Images, David made it clear that the new Result Work-Guard footwear collection had been in the development stage for several years, but its introduction was only made possible by the new DC, which allowed Result to introduce all the new lines safe in the knowledge that it could support its customers throughout Europe with the same level of stockholding and service that they are accustomed to. Looking forward, David is clear that the new facility will open the door to even more extensive new product development and see Result moving into ever more diverse product areas.
Another example of this newly liberated new product development process can be found in the Work-Guard Lite range of coordinated lightweight work outerwear that’s designed for use during the summer season and in warmer climates. Made from a strong, breathable and windproof 200 gsm polyester/ cotton fabric with a water repellent coating, and available in a choice of royal/navy/orange and grey/black/orange colourways, the range includes the R316X Lite Jacket, R317X Lite Gilet, R318X Lite Trouser, R319X Lite Shorts and R321X Lite Coverall. Also available in black only are the R323X Lite X-Over Holster Trouser, and the R322X Knee Protectors – flexible, lightweight and hard-wearing knee pads made from 100% ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) foam, which are designed to fit all Result Work-Guard knee pad trousers.
As Result settles into its new hi-tech home, the new lightweight workwear and safety footwear ranges look like being only the start of the company’s broader vision for its popular outerwear collection.