These familiar tools gain new importance in an age of dimensional weight pricing, warehouse capacity crunches, and omnichannel fulfillment.
Cubing and weighing systems have been important pieces of warehouse equipment for decades, providing precise size and weight data that allow workers to safely store material on racks, collect it on pallets, and load it on trucks.
DC workers often take these systems—which lack the cachet of, say, high-speed sortation systems or sophisticated planning software—for granted. However, recent changes in the industry are shining a spotlight on these devices and giving users a new reason to upgrade their equipment and reap further benefits.
MASTERING "DIM WEIGHT"
Companies in every corner of the supply chain universe felt the ground shift under their feet on Jan. 1 this year, when FedEx Corp. and UPS Inc. changed the way they price ground parcel services. As of that date, the giant carriers extended the dimensional weight pricing structure they had long applied to air and ground shipments of more than three cubic feet to all ground parcel shipments.
Under the new "dim weight" rules, the companies now determine shipping rates for parcels based on a combination of their weight and dimensions, not their weight alone. The change has reverberated particularly loudly for companies shipping lightweight items in large cartons, since the carriers effectively charge them an extra fee for occupying a disproportionate amount of space on a truck.
In turn, the advent of dim weight pricing has made cubing and weighing systems more important than ever. If you're multiplying length by height by width in inches, then dividing by 166 for a domestic shipment, you'd better have an accurate measurement system.
The reason for that is that FedEx and UPS will measure your package too, and then hit you with a chargeback fee if the parcels were rated incorrectly.
"Whether you're a less-than-truckload carrier, a freight forwarder, a big DC, or just a mom-and-pop shop shipping 50 jars of honey, you have to get accurate measurements to manifest freight correctly," said Justin Headley, marketing manager for CubiScan of Farmington, Utah, which makes cubing, weighing, and dimensioning systems.
Installing better dimensioning equipment in a DC can help a company save money on packing material in addition to shipping fees.
In the typical operation, workers often pack items in a slightly bigger box than necessary, filling the empty space with packing material, Headley said. But with precision dimensions delivered by a cubing and weighing machine, the packager can choose a more appropriate (read: smaller) carton, saving money on void fill, freight charges, and corrugate material.
In addition to helping warehouses hold down shipping costs, a dimensioning machine can be a crucial tool for shippers negotiating rates with carriers.
"You're not just going to negotiate by price, you're going to negotiate by volume; you can't rate-shop without giving them dimensions," said Bob Fischer, founder and CEO of Advanced Distribution Solutions Inc. (ADSI) of Schaumburg, Ill.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE DC ...
The benefits of capturing the precise dimensions of every item extend well beyond the packing station and shipping dock, however. That information has become critical to efficient DC storage practices as well.
That's because knowing the exact size of items allows DCs to optimize product slotting, packing the maximum number of items into valuable storage space.
It's no accident that some cubing and weighing systems are designed to measure packages with an accuracy of one-tenth of an inch for shipping applications, and an even more precise five one-thousandths of an inch for warehousing and distribution.
"Real estate is costly; if you save space, you save money," Headley said.
Makers of dimensioning machines have kept pace with these demands by upgrading the technology over the years. The first measuring systems used ultrasound-based platforms, but manufacturers quickly moved on to infrared technology, then digital cameras, and finally the laser-based 3D cameras with image processing capabilities found in today's top-line systems.
Among other benefits, these enhancements have made it possible for operations to use the equipment to weigh and measure pallets on freight docks, not just parcels neatly lined up on indoor conveyors, said Jerry Stoll, marketing manager for transportation and logistics at Columbus, Ohio-based Mettler Toledo LLC, a maker of weighing and dimensioning equipment.
Commercial parcel carriers have been using top-shelf dimensioners for years, but many less-than-truckload (LTL) freight carriers are still using manual tape measures to estimate density, Stoll said.
When laser technology finally entered the LTL market in 2006 or 2007, trucking companies realized they could use the data provided by the systems to participate in global multimodal moves with partners who needed precise measurements.
"Even palletized goods are rarely perfectly square," said Stoll. "They can be obscure or 'ugly,' with protrusions sticking out that make them oblong or irregular. The challenge is to determine what the minimal cuboidal shape is; in other words, what's the smallest box it could fit in?"
The latest dimensioning systems can capture far more information than that, however. Today's options include devices equipped with advanced sensors that read bar codes and package IDs, as well as high-end systems that document each item with a photo and a time stamp.
NO ROOM FOR ERROR
Pairing precision measurements with powerful software is quickly becoming an essential element in running a profitable omnichannel fulfillment operation, experts say.
Before the rise of e-commerce, warehouses typically shipped items in full case- or pallet-load quantities to other DCs or retail stores. But as online sales took off, they found themselves filling more consumer orders for individual items (or a handful of assorted items), and the job grew far more challenging.
"Let's say a customer orders a ball point pen, a ball cap, a baseball, and some apparel items all in one box. What is the best size box for shipping that?" Cubiscan's Headley said. "In omnichannel, there is really a lot of value to minimizing inefficiencies, and the savings will start to compound."
An e-commerce website may charge a consumer $8 in estimated shipping fees for that combination of items but face a $16 charge from the parcel carrier if a DC worker places the gear in an oversized mailing box.
"Then companies have a choice to make: Do they pass that extra cost on to the customer or do they eat it? One hundred percent of the time, they're going to end up eating it," Headley said.
Retailers can avoid that conflict if they run the items through a dimensioner first, export the cube and weight data to a warehouse management system (WMS), and use the software's load-planning or carton-optimization features to specify the exact size box to use.
Some companies take this approach to the extreme and build custom boxes for each order. These warehouses link their WMS's dimensional data with an on-demand box-making machine. These systems calculate box geometries and cut flat sheets of corrugate cardboard to the exact size needed. Workers then fold the sheet like a pizza box into a carton that's tailored to the specific order.
Given the proliferating business benefits, many companies have found they can achieve a quick return on investment by installing cubing and weighing systems in multiple locations throughout the DC. Whether they use the data to solve the challenges of dimensional weight shipping, warehouse slotting, or omnichannel fulfillment, users say these precision machines are here to stay.
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