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Inside Top Notch Distribution: Bringing robotics to hardware distribution

Top Notch Distributors has charged up its distribution activities with autonomous mobile robots.

Distribution network has 4 facilities: St. Charles, Mo.; Carson City, Nev.; Mansfield, Mass.; and Honesdale, Pa.

Size: 100,000 square feet (St. Charles)

Throughput: 3,000 orders and 4,000 packages per day on peak days

Products Handled: Architectural door hardware from more than 100 market-leading brands of residential, commercial and electronic access control systems

SKUs: 80,000+

Shifts per day/Days per week: 1 shift, 5 days a week—varies by season and promotion

At Top Notch Distributors’ Nevada and Missouri distribution centers, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) have brought a new level of efficiency to order fulfillment processes. Robots are currently being used in facilities in Carson City, Nev., and St. Charles, Mo., with plans to introduce them in Massachusetts. While the distribution centers use similar processes, the description here is for the Missouri DC, which is the largest in the network.

Check out the feature article on Top Notch: A Top-Notch Application of Robots


Most inventory is delivered to receiving (1) in truckload quantities. In the inbound processing area (2), associates scan newly received merchandise into the warehouse management system (WMS) and then stage pallets for putaway.

Putaway into storage:

Inventory is stored and picked from two areas. The largest of the two is a mixture of pallet rack and shelving (3)—some items will be stored in pallet quantities and others in case level quantities. The fastest-moving items are stored in case flow racking (4), which is easier to replenish. Associates are system directed to a storage location where they scan a location tag to confirm the putaway in the WMS. The inventory is now available to promise. Newly received merchandise is generally processed and putaway into storage within 24 hours of receipt.


Currently most orders are managed by the autonomous mobile robots, but some items are still manually picked to carts.

Manual picking:

For manual picks, associates are directed to a storage location. Once all the items for a cart are picked, they are inducted onto a shipping conveyor line (5) for final processing and then shipping (9).

Robotic picking:

All orders are downloaded from the WMS to 6 River’s operating system. To optimize pick paths and use of the autonomous robots, orders accumulate in the WMS; the system is able to create more optimal pick paths with the minimum amount of travel when it has a larger batch of orders. At the appropriate time, the robots are deployed and travel to a pick location. As a rule of thumb, Top Notch Distributors deploys two to three robots per picker. Using a combination of information on the screen and lights, associates are directed to a pick location; told how many items to pick; and where to put them on the robot. Associates confirm picks by using onboard scanning on the robot. The robot then goes to the next pick location. Occasionally, a group of robots will pick different items for an order. Those are temporarily stored on shelving in a consolidation area until all of the robots have finished picking for that order and the system prints a completion ticket.

Packing and value-added services:

Once all of the items for a robot have been picked, it travels to conveyor induction station. Cartons that are ready for shipping are diverted to a dunnage and taping area (7) and then to an automatic print-and-apply station (8). The cartons are then conveyed to shipping.

Items that require customization, such as locks to be specially keyed, are directed to a value-added services area (6). Once the work is completed, they are inducted back onto the conveyor system for taping and labeling before shipping.

System suppliers:

System design, integration & robotics: 6 River Systems
Rack & conveyor line design & integration: Kuecker Pulse Integration
ERP: Epicor
WMS: Epicor and 6 River Systems
Mobile computing & bar code scanning: Zebra
Motor-driven roller conveyor: Hytrol Conveyor
Racking: Mecalux
Carton flow rack: Interroll
Lift trucks: Raymond

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About the Author

Bob Trebilcock's avatar
Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock is the editorial director for Modern Materials Handling and an editorial advisor to Supply Chain Management Review. He has covered materials handling, technology, logistics, and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. He is a graduate of Bowling Green State University. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at 603-357-0484.
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