01 March 2012

Picking the right mix

Every warehouse can benefit from some automation – get it right and you can achieve the best of both worlds with high productivity and flexibility. Laura Cork reports

To automate or not to automate? That's not the question. These days, automation is not an all or nothing solution; instead, many businesses are employing partial automation to maximise flexibility, value for money and efficiency.

Critics of automated handling technology who, until now, have argued that automation is inflexible and costly with a long payback periods have been won over. So says Steve Richmond, general manager of Jungheinrich UK's systems and projects division.

The profile of the typical user has evolved in line with developments in handling technology, as Richmond explains: "Increasingly a more diverse range and size of business now recognise the advantages that modern automated handling technology can offer. While there are still some very large projects around, there is more significant growth in the number of small and medium-sized automated projects."

There's increased demand, for example, in the area of mini load cranes for handling cartons and totes, he says: "In the right application, high performance mini load systems can deliver products to picking and packing stations at tremendous speeds, outperforming many conventional, alternative systems. I expect to see interest in the mini load product increasing significantly in the next few years."

According to Richmond, the current interest in automation is also being driven by a shift in the size and scope of modern systems. "Many users now employ partial automation – hybrid systems that are part-automated and part-manual," he says. "Automation no longer means that every aspect of the warehouse has to be automated – just the parts of it that will benefit most."

Partial automation is something that our peers on the continent have picked up on much faster than UK businesses. Richmond believes this is due to unrealistic payback expectations by some UK companies. Instead of commissioning one large automated system, with high up-front costs, he urges them to look at phasing in areas of automation which, in turn, deliver staged payback.

"In applications where automated handling systems are phased in, payback can be calculated for the individual phases of the project to provide the most effective use of capital," he adds.

The term 'automation' is still associated by many with the automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) delivered by system implementers like Swisslog and Knapp, and most often seen in large distribution centres. But even ASRS can be scaled accordingly. It can be highly cost-effective for those areas of the business where predictability enables automation of this kind.

Scalability is a point picked up by Dave Bull, business development manager at systems integrator Dematic.

"Automation is changing its profile in terms of scale," Bull agrees. "It's no longer synonymous with large investment and systems integration. Entry-level technologies such as voice picking or laser guided trucks can provide an almost instant win and a base from which customers can ramp up the level of automation over the years as their business grows."

These 'pockets' of automation, as he calls them, can provide specific and swift benefits such as a simple transport conveyor linking two processes or a standalone ASRS store to minimise the storage footprint. "It's become essential for a systems integrator to offer these less complex systems, which are more attractive on a price point," says Bull.

Dematic is well known as a large systems integrator but its products division, which offers customers solutions such as voice, conveying and pick to light, is "thriving", reports Bull: "These products can be implemented without major upheaval and call for only a relatively small investment. If you can tell a customer that they will get their investment back in 12 months' time and then reap pure profit, they will see opting for the automated route as less of a challenge."

Cereal manufacturer Weetabix has practically doubled available storage space at its Burton Latimer, Northamptonshire, manufacturing facility, thanks to the introduction of automated warehousing technology.

Weetabix decided to outsource its warehousing and distribution operations in 2009. As well as driving overall efficiency improvements, a key objective was to find a solution which would eliminate the need for off-site storage.

Following a competitive tender, the company appointed Norbert Dentressangle. Several of the responses to Weetabix's ITT recommended introducing automated warehousing, but their proposals involved extending the existing facility to accommodate this. A major factor in Norbert Dentressangle's appointment was the company's proposal to retrofit an automated storage and retrieval system within the main chamber of the existing distribution centre at Burton Latimer, so giving a more cost-effective solution.

A joint team comprising representatives from both companies was formed to manage the project and Weetabix decided to invest in a state-of-the-art pallet warehouse to enable future expansion. TGW was awarded the contract to design and integrate this within the existing building.

To free up space within the complex and to reduce the number of pallets held in off-site storage, the automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) was commissioned. TGW Group has designed the equipment and integrated it into the existing operation.

TGW's solution sees pallets conveyed and handled two pallets high, to optimise throughput and space. There are 22,000 pallet locations in the warehouse, serviced by three dynamic fully automatic TGW Magnus pallet handling cranes, supplying multiple pallet deep storage tubes with TGW Muli satellite vehicles. This new solution allows 200 loads per hour to be put away and retrieved.

"We have deployed the TGW load recovery access system," says Philip Steeds, TGW's sales director. "It allows safe access for qualified operators into the storage tubes to recover a failed or damaged load and can also be deployed in support of the maintenance and health and safety activity. The Magnus and Muli is used to deploy and recover the access cages into and from these storage tubes." The entire solution has been integrated into the existing facilities at the Weetabix site.

To allow operations to continue while the new solution was installed, TGW phased the installation works and coordinated each stage of the transition with the ongoing live operations.

Weetabix says the design is very robust and has taken the available pallet storage from around 12,000 to 22,000 within the same footprint – almost doubling the capacity. As with any automated installation, there are also the associated health and safety benefits due to minimising vehicle movements through the space, so reducing the risk of accidents.

So, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution, it's clear that these days automation is much more of a pick and mix offer – offering companies the benefits of automation without forcing them to make the leap in to full automation that was once considered the only way to progress from a manual operation.

People-free pallet movements
Shuttles are proving to be popular as they provide partial automation for fairly low cost.

Bito Storage Systems, for example, now offers the PROmotion shuttle (below, left), a remote-controlled, battery-powered device that operates in pallet racking. Bito says the shuttle enables continuous and efficient feeding of pallets into and out of storage lanes and keeps track of stock movements.

The device moves on purpose-built guide rails, effectively driving up and down the lane on its own. It can be moved to another lane with a conventional forklift truck. The shuttle is powered by a lithium-ion battery, offerering the advantages of no memory effect, little self-discharge and high energy density. Recharged batteries have a working period of up to 12 hours and also operate in deepfreeze environments.

Automated guided vehicles have been around for a while, but Jungheinrich has launched a new type which is called the Auto Pallet Mover (below, right). Based on standard lift truck technology, the driverless APM has been designed to perform routine handling tasks such as delivering palletised loads from the goods-in area or production line to a transfer point in the racking system.

The vehicle has its own control and guidance system so can operate as a standalone product or it can be integrated into a wider automation solution and controlled by a warehouse management system.

Author
Laura Cork

Supporting Information

Companies
Bito Storage Systems Ltd
Dematic Ltd
Jungheinrich (GB) Ltd
Jungheinrich (GB) Ltd
Jungheinrich (GB) Ltd
Jungheinrich UK Ltd
Jungheinrich UK Ltd
Jungheinrich(GB)Ltd
KNAPP UK Ltd
Norbert Dentressangle
Norbert Dentressangle
Norbert Dentressangle Logistics
Swisslog Software
TGW Ltd

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