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Rolling with Change

Retro-fits and facility re-engineering in a live fulfillment environment
By JJ Phelan, PE, VP of Systems Sales

One of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes is “to improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” It’s an apt quote for the Material Handling Industry, especially today, as evolving consumer demand drives continual change.

Consumers now easily search, purchase, and expect immediate delivery of virtually every product. The most common order profiles have shrunk to single line, single item orders, and shifted from boxes to envelopes. Companies are faced with the choice of either revamping their processes and automation – or getting left behind.

Even the largest ecommerce retailers don’t have deep enough pockets to entirely replace fulfillment centers, leaving re-engineering projects – often called brownfield – to dominate the material handling industry for years.

In my career, I’ve been both client side and integrator side, managing complicated re-engineering projects in a live environment for one of the world’s largest ecommerce companies. I’ve learned that the keys to success include intense planning, constant communications, dedication to safety, and a thorough understanding of fulfillment operations.

Planning – Create a road map

A critical first step is a multi-disciplined site audit, including not only equipment characteristics, but the interconnected software and controls.

  1. Get the right team in place. It should include mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, controls engineers, and a team of millwright mechanics and electricians.
  2. Create contingency plans that are reviewed and agreed upon by the project stakeholders, especially the operations team, in the event of an unforeseen circumstance.
  3. Ideally, the “cut-in” or “tie-in” where new equipment is incorporated should be planned in between shifts for minimal impact.
  4. Since the existing operations must continue to fulfill orders, it’s also critical to break the project into phases that put operations management first.
  5. Once each phase is completed, monitor the entire system, so that all integrations are fully tested, especially to surge capacities. The post tie-in monitoring can take many hours, if not days, to ensure that each phased integration is complete and effective.


Frequent and open communications between stakeholders, and the creation of a disciplined schedule are essential for operating in an active operating facility.

  1. Kickoff meeting for all stakeholders, followed by planning meetings with necessary department leadership, such as site safety team, physical security/loss prevention team, training, operations, building and equipment maintenance, and information technology. Develop procedures that ensure the project runs smoothly, and to minimize surprises.
  2. Daily on-site “stand-up” meetings for the day-to-day coordination of tasks, including any scope of work conflicts, should include the entire integration team, site manager, site safety supervisor, mechanical installation lead and electrical installation lead. Encourage the client’s site maintenance, information technology, operations, and safety representatives to attend.
  3. Daily wrap up report – including the day’s progress and the next day’s plan.
  4. Weekly project status meeting. This is a high-level meeting run by the integration project manager and the site leadership to review overall progress, upcoming milestones, and any critical tie-in preparations in between implementation phases. Action items are tracked and reviewed as the first topic of discussion so that nothing is lost in the shuffle.


Re-engineering material handling systems in a live fulfillment center, is inherently complicated, with movement of heavy and bulky equipment, amidst people and other mechanization fulfilling orders.

To mitigate risk, processes must be put in place so that equipment is not damaged, and people are not injured.

  1. Employ a full-time site safety supervisor whose singular task is to maintain safe practices. To avoid potential conflicts of interest, don’t allow the site safety supervisor to double as a site manager or production manager.
  2. Provide daily safety tips.
  3. Conduct weekly safety walk-through’s with site safety leadership.
  4. Inspect all temporary security fencing and ensure proper distances from the construction activities.
  5. Ensure all fall protection equipment is being properly utilized.
  6. Ensure electrical safety practices are followed, and if any hotwork is performed, the necessary hotwork approval procedures are followed.

In identifying and communicating any risky planned tasks, the site safety supervisor also documents and submits daily Job Hazard Assessments to the customer’s site safety leadership.


Understanding the underlying purposes of the re-engineering effort from the clients viewpoint is critical to ensure that the re-engineered system design can meet its operational goals. This is more than simply connecting subsystems with other subsystems by way of conveyors and sorters. It’s making sure that the entire system is fully vetted and understood to capture all possible operational scenarios that happen daily, weekly and during surge periods, such as a holiday peak.  

In tandem, recognizing the natural rhythm of every fulfillment center helps in timing the best opportunities for accomplishing each phase so they are the least disruptive and less risky.


When it comes to testing out new systems and subsystems in a live environment, every possible scenario should be considered. This includes the various shapes and forms of the packages to be scanned, conveyed, and sorted, the daily surges in product volume, the impact on various critical pull times for outbound shipping, the influence on shift changes or shift coverages, and other operational variables.

Remember, the facility is not in a “ramp up” mode similar to a brand-new building. Instead, the operations are at steady state and cannot afford any disruptions in their output.

Before you begin

Not every integrator has these skills, tools, or discipline. Asking the right questions and getting the right answers can make all the difference for an on-time, on-budget, fully re-engineering and operational facility.