Chemical distribution companies have several requirements when facing challenges in today’s business world. They include:

  • Needing an overview of end-to-end supply chain processes including solutions to increase operational efficiencies
  • Getting an overview of planning and inventory management for bulk chemicals and packaged chemicals
  • Understanding best practice depictions of typical chemical distribution processes

By the Numbers

Chemical distribution companies today are focusing their efforts on optimizing supply chains, and warehouse and floor operations. They function as a supply chain partner, anticipating customer needs and helping them stay ahead of their competition.

  • The chemical distribution industry is on a massive growth curve. Grand View Research states the industry’s value was $247.1 billion in 2020.
  • The expected compound annual growth rate from 2020 -2028 is 4.0 percent.
  • There’s a growing need to set your processes straight and streamline your supply chain with sufficient controls in place to keep up with the pace of the market.

4 Key Processes

There are 4 key processes that matter to a chemical distribution company:

  1. Order-to-Cash: The ability to take a customer’s order efficiently and deliver it by the customer’s deadline.
  2. Procure-to-Pay: The ability to manage purchase orders and receiving departments efficiently, optimizing spending on procurement to avoid high capital inventory spending.
  3. Inventory Management: Inventory Management: Maintaining optimal inventory levels without excessive capital spending.
  4. Break Bulk Operations: Break Bulk Operations: Breaking down bulk shipments such as tankers and large shipments of individual products into smaller pack sizes.

User Story: Warehouse Chaos

Survival in a highly competitive world requires chemical distribution companies to efficiently organize and design their warehouses. Internal routes must be optimized to let manned and robotic pickers grab inventory for break bulking, repacking or outbound shipments. Inventory storage needs to be precisely planned, especially while handling hazardous chemicals.

Too familiar is the chemical customer with multiple warehouses. They store bulk and packaged chemicals stocked in rows, racks and bins spread across multiple aisles. Some of these chemicals require temperature controls. Many have hazardous condition restrictions.

It’s common for companies to focus on meeting the basics and storing things wherever they fit. No warehouses are organized, making it difficult to track where the incoming product was stored and gather items to fill customer orders.

Making matters worse are poor operational practices. For example, a high-volume order involved taking some contents from a 55-gallon bulk chemical drum. Operators move the drum to the Stage, remove what order the order required and then leave the drum at staging. No effort is made to record the location or remaining quantity. At best, inventory numbers are manually written on a tag attached to the drum, not entered into the computer system.

This method creates many inefficiencies later in the production process. They include:

  1. Inefficient use of space. The Staging area was already small. It was made worse by leaving drums and totes for break-bulk orders, causing Staging to grow continually.
  2. Inefficient use of time. The system showed the drums were at their primary inventory location. Operators unable to find items there had to manually check each tag. Some operators eventually knew to look for inventory in the primary or staging locations. Other workers wasted time looking for the items.
  3. No inventory tracking method.
  4. Inaccurate inventory counts. Inventories were constantly adjusted for missing or untraceable inventory. Lack of accurate counts meant ordering more supplies to fulfill customer demands.
  5. Over-ordering meant not having enough space to store the extra bulk material.

The chaos caused by not returning bulk items to their designated location can make conducting a physical count a Herculean task. With missing inventory placed at unplanned staging locations, it added to the warehouse imbalances.

An Ideal Journey

Organizing any operation-chemical manufacturing or distribution starts with analyzing its operations, growth initiatives and business goals for the next five years.

Ways to make warehouses more efficient include:

  • Review existing warehouse storage and design in terms of locations and inventory groupings.
  • Using federal, state and local safety guidelines based on chemical properties, create procedures stating where chemicals must be stored.
  • Number locations by aisle, row, rack and bins.
  • Place the fasting moving items close to the shipping area.
  • When receiving bulk containers, label them with a scannable barcode.
  • Label the put-away locations and staging locations so checkers can quickly and easily count quantities in a specific location.
  • Provide workers with mobile devices that let them scan barcodes providing real-time work details and order status updates.

Processes and Procedures in the Chemical Industry

Chemical manufacturing and distribution companies have many similarities in terms of receiving, inventory, planning, shipping and warehouse management.

The basic processes within the chemical distribution industry are centered more around warehouse management, inventory, planning, repacking, light manufacturing, shipping and receiving. Chemical manufacturing adds route operations, resources and work-in-progress (WIP) testing.

Inventory management processes in a chemical distribution company start with Purchasing and Receiving.

Purchased products are bulk or packaged chemicals, packaging items, labels and other supplies. These products normally come from an approved primary vendor or supplier.

Reporting and analytics show two statistics that determine the effectiveness of the primary supplier:

  1. The buyer’s decision to switch to an alternate vendor for a specific purchase.
  2. The number of times this change occurs.

Vendor ratings showing the percentage of purchases delivered on time and in full are also important to buyers.

FIGURE: 1High-level Flow of Purchase Order-to-receive Process

High level flow of purchase to receive process

The next major process is inventory and warehouse management.

The most efficient warehouses are organized by aisle, row, rack, bin, lot or batch. They have pallet ID tags and box IDs. Materials managers seeking better organization find that using a license plate number for rows, racks, bins and pallets works best. Using scannable barcodes lets users with mobile devices easily retrieve inventory.

Using this method reduces lost inventory, incorrect counts and locations. It also makes tracking individual products faster and easier such as when repacking items.

Labeling all warehouse locations is also critical when streamlining operations. Two common methods are Serpentine and Standard. Most companies follow a four-location naming standard with aisle, rack, row and bin.

FIGURE: 2Layout of a Typical Warehouse in a Chemical Distribution Company

Layout of a typical warehouse in a chemical distribution company

The third main process used by chemical distribution companies is capacity planning or master planning.

These companies should plan to break bulk and repack, changing labels at each stage. Master plans help track human resources, label printers, packaging machines and other devices.

Typical operations such as repackaging or breaking bulk require those stations and their operators. These functions cannot occur when either is unavailable.

Distribution companies seeing fast-moving or express items require planning that is more agile. Agility requires operating on a net change mode instead of completely recreating set-ups every hour. Having that flexibility helps planners make key decisions and set priorities that optimize the work effort.

FIGURE: 3High-level view of Master Plan in Microsoft Dynamics 365

High level view of master plan in microsoft dynamics 365

The fourth major process is production and packaging.

Production in chemical distribution companies uses light manufacturing operations such as repacking. A bulk container is opened and quantities required to fill an order are removed.

Typical work orders include operations such as filling, packing, labor, quality and Labeling. The yield provides the quantities and costs to produce each container.

Labeling is the fifth major process.

Labeling is an additional operation on the shop floor. Including an integrated label management solution included in normal workflows ensures merchandise is properly tracked.

FIGURE: 4High-level Repack Process in Chemical Distribution

High-level Repack Process in Chemical Distribution

The last two steps are order management followed by billing.

Once inventory is available, warehouse pickers should select the fastest route that lets them gather all items to fill that order. Items are then packaged, labeled and wrapped. Typically, they include certificates of analysis, safety data sheets, a packing slip and a bill of lading. Smaller orders often include a commercial shipping service tracking number.

As soon as everything is packed and shipped, the final step is sending the customer an accurate bill.

FIGURE: 5High-level Customer Sales Order to Shipment in Chemical Distribution

High level customer sales order to shipment in chemical distribution