HIGH-ACCURACY SCALES HELP LEADING ELECTRONIC COMPONENTS DISTRIBUTOR PUT THEIR WEIGHT BEHIND SERVICE GUARANTEELocated in the town of Thief River Falls, Minnesota, Digi-Key Corporation has gained a reputation as one of the country's premier electronic component distributors. Founded in 1972 and offering over 70,000 products representing more than 180 manufacturers, Digi-Key, according to independent industry surveys, has been consistently recognized as the top rated U.S. electronic distributor, based on criteria such as availability of product, speed of responsiveness, pricing, delivery, and overall performance.
Moreover, the company "fill rate" - their ability to fill customer orders from on-hand inventory - is over 90%, far outdistancing the industry average of 50% or less. Based on this impressive track record, Digi-Key's 30%+ annual sales growth over the last decade should come as no surprise.
Yet, even for an industry front-runner like Digi-Key, the service guarantee that the company offers its customers is, to say the least, ambitious. Simply, the guarantee assures that all orders - regardless of size - placed by 5:00 p.m. (CST) will be shipped the same day, While it's a strong selling point for customers, this guarantee creates enormous pressure for Digi-Key. To back it up, Digi-Key must be certain that all facets of their business - order entry, customer service, receiving, picking, shipping, purchasing, and inventory - are operating at peak efficiency.
Digi-Key has spared no expense nor overlooked any measures to enhance process efficiency, the fact that all of these customer-critical operations are ISO 9002 certified underscores this point. Moreover, Digi-Key's organizational structure - no outside sales force, single location, (no remote warehouses or sales offices), and a staggering product inventory - also helps Digi-Key in keeping its unique guarantee achievable.
Interestingly, Digi-Key can also attribute the successful maintenance of its guarantee, at least partially, to a less obvious source - its scales. The scales are the product of Setra Systems Inc.'s Weighing Systems Division, a leading supplier of high-precision counting scales and laboratory balances based in Boxborough, Massachusetts. The Setra scales were supplied by Northern Balance & Scale, Inc., Bloomington, Minnesota,
Digi-Key currently uses two models: the 5000C and the CP series. Both models employ variable capacitance ceramic load cell technology - developed and patented by Setra - which accounts for the scales' high accuracy. Coupled with an on-board microcomputer running Setra's custom software, CP Series scales use high internal resolution to produce accurate counts based on very small sample sizes.
The 5000C offers a weighing capacity of 5000 grams and readability of .01 grams. The CP Series offers weighing capacities ranging from 35 pounds to 140 pounds, and readabilities from .0005 pounds to .002 pounds. Both feature a counting resolution of 1 part in 750,000. The 5000C model provides the added benefit of count or weight accumulation, a feature which adds to scale memory the weight or count from each transaction. The scale tracks how many entries are made, and the RECALL key allows the operator to determine the sum total of all entries.
"Our scales, which we utilize throughout the facility, offer a combination of accuracy and ease of use that our previous scales couldn't match," said John LeDuc, one of Digi-Key's Technical Supervisors. "Due to this accuracy, we have virtually eliminated the need for reweighing or counting by hand, reducing order-filling time, and increasing overall efficiency.
"Their ease of use also translates to substantial time savings, so it's far easier to make our guarantee stick,"
Because literally hundreds of companies depend on the prompt delivery of its diverse product lines, it's clear why anything less than top-quality equipment can have no part in the company's operation. Components purchased from Digi-Key have found their way into a wide array of applications, both consumer and commercial, although commercial markets account for over 90% of Digi-Key's current business base. What's more, the distributor also boasts a rather eclectic client list: how many companies can claim to have done business with Disneyland, Paramount Pictures, the Space Agency, and even Barry Goldwater, who once purchased a digital clock kit?
The scales are an integral part of a sophisticated operation, one which includes one of the largest conveyor and automatic picking system in the state, After customers place their orders, the appropriate components are pulled and the scales are used to count out the various parts, after which the order travels to the next station area, The scales are also utilized to check the accuracy of the pick before shipping.
The CP series is ideally suited for a company like Digi-Key, where both small and large parts are counted, as the acute sensitivity is essential for counting smaller pieces, while larger items require higher weighing capacities.
"We use the scales to help us package the 150-175 different electronics kits we offer, which are comprised of relatively small parts," said Kathy Langston, Value-Add Supervisor." Besides the accuracy, the convenience of doing the job right the first time is a clear benefit."
"In addition, each individual scale transaction contributes to an increase in overall efficiency and productivity for us," she added. "When you consider the hundreds of transactions we perform each day, then figure that out over each week, month and year, you get a sense of how significant this can be."
The first Setra scales were purchased in 1995 when Digi-Key undertook a major expansion of their facility. Based on the positive experience they had with Setra, they began replacing all of their other scales en masse - about four or five at a time. To date, Digi-Key uses sixteen 5000C scales and eight CP Series.
According to LeDuc, the scales' relative ease of use makes training a far simpler process.
"Many scales feature a number of bells and whistles which, frankly, are not always necessary for your operation," he said. "Consequently, they are not only very complicated and difficult to use, they present a challenge in terms of employee training.
"Training our employees to use the Setra scales was far easier and less costly than with other scales; it could be accomplished with a very simple, quick explanation," he continued. "We save time on each employee that receives training on the scales. When you take into account that literally hundreds of people use the scales, it's easy to see how the time savings begins to accumulate,"
Based on employee feedback, Langston envisions that all scales used throughout the operation will eventually be provided by Setra.
"Obviously, employees will readily embrace any tool that makes their jobs easier," she said. "They can do their jobs faster, better, and don't have to go back and hand-count items.
"In certain departments where we don't currently have Setra scales, employees want to know when we're going to get them."
Ultimately, Digi-Key envisions the implementation of the Setra scales into a comprehensive inventory control system - a logical progression given that the company employs bar code technology in every process from order entry to final shipping. The first function, LeDuc added, will be for the system to verify receivables as well as the average piece weight (APW). If the APW is not known, it is determined through a sampling process. The scale prompts the operator to count 50 pieces onto the scale pan. By pressing a key, the scale determines how much one piece weighs, based on the weight of the entire sample.
While the convergence of many factors help account for Digi-Key's success, Langston goes to great pains to ensure that the scales and their part in the operation are not minimized.
"The essence of our quality statement is that we're committed to meeting or exceeding our customers' expectations, both in terms of products and service. Because the majority of our orders are weighed or counted at one time or another, the scales can certainly impact on whether or not we live up to that commitment."
As seen in Material Handling Product News, September 1998.
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