The Thread That Runs So Blue: AS/400s Keep Tommy Hilfiger Humming

Rapid growth is every company’s desire, and the AS/400 can handle even the most explosive booms in sales. However, peripheral equipment sometimes doesn’t fare as well under increased pressure. That was a recent lesson learned at Tommy Hilfiger Inc., one of the world’s fastest-growing clothing companies, producing lines of classic khakis, denim jeans and rainbow-hued athletic wear.

In its most recent fiscal year, the company grew at a 28 percent rate, with sales jumping to $847 million. No problem for the company’s two model 650 AS/400s, which run customized shipping applications at it Secaucus, N.J.-based warehouse. In fact, Tommy Hilfiger plans to add a new half-million-square-foot distribution center in January, but run it from the same AS/400s. Both facilities will share the two AS/400s, which will be connected over T1 lines via Perle 594 controllers, connecting to an additional 300 terminals in the new facility.

But the increase in orders was taxing the company’s printers, which were breaking down under the strain of processing hundreds or thousands of orders every day. This was slowing operations, says Darrin Brady, operations manager at the Secaucus site. "We had a lot of downtime. When a printer goes down, we lose that workstation."

That’s because the warehouse relies on the printouts to custom-fill all orders, Brady says. The company’s goal is to turn around each order it receives within two days. The fulfillment process begins at night, when two line matrix printers output an average of about 2,300 "pick tickets," or shopping lists for warehouse employees. Each ticket is a two-part form generated from scanned customer orders. It includes a list of each item the customer has ordered, plus bar codes for better tracking.

"We can mix anything – two pairs of jeans and five shirts, all jeans, all shirts – anything and everything," Brady says. "We don’t have any prepackaged items. It’s all custom shipments – typically, about 140,000 garments a day."

When all of the items for an order are picked, they are sent to a packing station, where the garments are scanned and the order is verified against the pick ticket. After verification, a clean packing ticket and an inventory slip for shipment with the order are printed on a dot-matrix printer.

In 1997, the company selected Genicom Corp. (Chantilly, Va.), with assistance from Genicom reseller Millennium Technologies (Butler, N.J.), to install a new generation of line and dot-matrix printers. The Secaucus warehouse currently uses 40 Genicom 3940 printers, which operate five or six days a week, 16 hours a day, and "really take a pounding," Brady notes. "We’re generating a new ticket every three-to-five minutes on each printer." The company plans to add an 70 additional 3940s when the new facilities are up in January.