By Danielle Galian, Assistant Editor
Walking into Ta Chen International, Inc.’s new Midwestern distribution center is like entering a finely tuned machine. The crisp, modern décor and welcoming faces are the packaging, so to speak, for a highly automated engine that functions with the speed and precision of a NASCAR pit crew. It is bright and open, and the calmness in the air is indicative of the confidence and expertise of its team that work very closely together to ensure high quality and satisfaction for customers.
There is a transparency in all they do that not only extends to vendors and customers, but The Wholesaler when we came for a recent visit. Almost nothing was off limits for either conversation or pictures. It is all a reflection of the modern attitude, practices and products that drive Ta Chen.
Growing Midwest customer demand led Ta Chen to expand its facilities in Greater Chicagoland. Their new, impressive 470,000-square-foot warehouse, just north of Chicago in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., is one of 10 locations that TCI has in the U.S. It houses some of the most advanced distribution equipment in the industry. “This is such a strong market for all the commodities we sell,” said Branch Manager Rick Barbitta. “We literally ran out of space in our previous two facilities and were losing our efficiency, so we built this one from the ground up based on what we knew we needed. It’s extremely transactional.”
In fact, according to Barbitta, more than 80% of their orders are shipped the same or next day. With a total of 64 employees – 45 of whom work between two shifts in the warehouse – Ta Chen handles about 80 million pounds of inventory worth about $130 million at any given time. The location serves 13 Midwestern states.
“We start at 5 am and end about 1 am,” explained Vice President and Regional Manager Fred Nummela. “If a customer places an order by 5 pm, it’s usually ready for pick-up or delivery the next day. In our business, if we don’t have the inventory, we won’t get the orders, because customers typically need their product in less than a week. So we make it a practice to only take orders for inventory we have on the floor, although there are some occasions that we will do mill-direct shipments. And we can call on other Ta Chen warehouses for product.”
As Account Manager Michael Johnson noted, customers appreciate the quality of Ta Chen’s inventory. “We pride ourselves on having consistent quality product, whether it is from our own mills or vendors we source from,” he noted. “Quality is very important. Customers want the AMLs (Approved Manufacturer Listing) and MTRs (Mill Test Reports). All of our material is the highest quality, meeting all standard ASTM and ASME specifications. A large percentage of our products sold are from approved vendors.”
The warehouse is literally a hub of activity, with people and equipment working seamlessly. In fact, it is so efficient that Ta Chen has gone from shipping an average of 2 million pounds a month of product from their original Chicago area location to 14 million from the new facility " and with just one additional sales person.
“We designed the facility with two drive-thru areas, four lanes in total near the middle of the building," said Nummela. "In addition, there is a central order staging area that has increased efficiencies; it has doubled the material we can get out in a day. Because the building is so long, it makes more sense to unload incoming material at either end, store it in designated locations, and load outgoing trucks in the middle drive thru areas. This more efficient way eliminates having to traverse the entire warehouse."
There are 15 overhead cranes that move much of our product from one end of the building to the other. There are also conveyors that move pans of material. Everything is barcoded and scanned multiple times before shipping. “The barcodes make it harder for us to pull something incorrectly,” said Barbitta. “If someone is loading something onto a truck that doesn’t belong, they’ll know it right away when it is scanned.”
Four drive-thru lanes allow flexibility and an “express lane” so drivers picking up small orders can be in and out quickly. They have the ability to get 24 of their customers' trucks inside the building at any given time. The high-speed warehouse doors go up and down in a remarkable 2.5 seconds, which works wonders on conserving heat indoors in the winter and keeping it cool in the summer. Exit doors are operated via sensor. An elaborate camera system is set up at all the doors, driver entries and throughout the warehouse; monitors are positioned at a central location with an in-house phone so the “quarterback” as Ta Chen refers to the person who mans that station can talk to drivers and direct them to best bay for their pick up or delivery. The closed-circuit TV gives drivers a face-to-face conversation with someone, which makes for a more welcoming environment. The camera system also gives Ta Chen the ability to track every truck and shipment that comes through the warehouse.
“We have very good traceability,” said Barbitta. “It tracks exactly how long drivers are here and what is loaded or taken off the trucks. There are four camera locations from door to door that follow a truck from the time they pull up until they leave. You can literally see the whole process, which is great if there is ever a question about a shipment, while also helping the warehouse team better manage the process. We keep roughly 120 days of digital recordings on hand from the 56 cameras.”
In addition to energy saved thanks to the high-speed doors, Ta Chen’s new facility has motion sensor-based lighting to supplement the natural light, LED light wherever possible, as well as a shredder for excess paper that is used as packing material.
“Everyone works together in the best interest of Ta Chen and our partners," said Nummela. "We tried to create an environment that encourages and motivates our employees, which is reflected in their performance.”
The new Midwest facility and state-of-the-art equipment has allowed Ta Chen to double the number of line items filled per hour and reduce man hours worked by 33%. "Our plant is an industry showplace, we are proud to have our customers see it, as it is a testament to Ta Chen’s commitment to the business," said Nummela.
This approach has done well for them and they are implementing a similar concept at their new Charlotte, N.C., warehouse scheduled to open in August.
“We encourage customers to come see our facility,” Johnson noted. “It opens their eyes to how much material we carry and the type of investment we’re making to support them. It helps them understand the value of what we do.”
And Barbitta closed by saying, “We keep our facility immaculately clean and welcoming. Customers like seeing the bright, shiny product and equipment. We like to think of our product as polished jewelry.”