Inside Top Notch Distribution: bringing robotics to material distribution

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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 in use at facilities in Carson City, Nevada, and St. Charles, Mo., with plans to bring them to Massachusetts. While distribution centers use similar processes, the description here is for Missouri DC, which is the largest in the network.

Check out the feature article on Top Notch: A Top Notch Robot App


Most stocks are delivered upon receipt (1) in quantities of trucks. In the inbound processing area (2), the associates digitize the newly received goods into the warehouse management system (WMS) and then prepare the pallets for entry into stock.

Storage arrangement:

Inventory is stored and selected in two areas. The larger of the two is a mix of pallet racking and shelving (3)—Some items will be stored in pallet quantities and others in checkout-level quantities. The fastest items are stored in continuous flow racks (4), which is easier to reconstruct. Associates are directed by the system to a vault where they scan a bin label to confirm put-away in the WMS. Inventory is now available at the promise. Newly received goods are generally processed and put into storage within 24 hours of receipt.


Currently, most orders are handled by autonomous mobile robots, but some items are still picked manually from baskets.

Manual picking:

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

Robotic picking:

All orders are downloaded from the WMS to the 6 River operating system. To optimize picking paths and the use of autonomous robots, orders are accumulated in the WMS; the system is able to create more optimal picking paths with minimal travel when it has a larger batch of orders. At the appropriate time, the robots are deployed and move to a sampling location. Typically, Top Notch Distributors deploys two to three robots per preparer. Using a combination of on-screen information and lights, associates are directed to a collection location; says how many items to choose; and where to put them on the robot. The associates confirm the choices by using the digitization on board the robot. The robot then moves to the next picking location. Sometimes a group of robots will choose different items for an order. These are temporarily stored on shelves in a consolidation area until all robots have finished picking for that order and the system prints a completion ticket.

Packaging and value-added services:

After all the items of a robot have been picked, it goes to the conveyor induction station. Boxes ready to be shipped are diverted to a dunnage and taping area (7) then to an automatic printing and application station (8). The boxes are then sent to shipping.

Items that require customization, such as special key locks, are directed to a value-added service area (6). Once the job is done, they are fed back to the conveyor system to be taped and labeled before shipping.

System providers:

System design, integration and robotics: 6 River networks
Design and integration of rack and conveyor lines: Kuecker Pulse integration
ERP: Epicor
WMS: Epicor and 6 river systems
Mobile computing and barcode reading: Zebra
Motorized roller conveyor: Hytrol conveyor
Shelving: Mecalux
Cardboard flow holder: Interroll
Forklifts: Raymond

November 15, 2021

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock Bob Trebilcock, Editorial Director, has covered material handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for almost 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also editor-in-chief of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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Articles topics

6 River Systems Epicor Hytrol Robotics System Report Zebra All topics

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