High street company Boots the Chemists is one of Britain’s longest established retail chains with its stores found at the heart of high streets nationwide. However, Boots is much more than just a retail chain – it is also a medicine and cosmetics manufacturer, and manages its own distribution network. Of Boots’ 1,420 stores, 1,260 contain an in-house dispensing pharmacy – a fact which presents very special distribution needs. These pharmacies are a key element in Boots’ core business and, to further enhance its brand-leading position, the retailer has invested more than £9M in a new state-of-the-art automated order picking and distribution warehouse dedicated to prescription medicines.
Customer service is vital in the healthcare business and the Boots logistics system accesses some 1,800 lines and despatches more than 100 million individual items of prescription drugs a year. Medicines ordered by all Boots’ pharmacies before 6.30pm are delivered to stores throughout the British Isles for store opening the next working day.
The key to the success of the new venture is a £4.5M automated handling system designed and installed by Knapp Logistik Automation into Boots’ 9,300sq m D80 dispensing warehouse situated at the group’s Nottingham complex. The warehouse was an existing building on the complex which was refurbished for the £9M-plus project.
John Uren, dispensing warehouse manager at Boots, says that before D80 was created the pharmacies were served by two facilities at Aldershot and Heywood. Centralising the two operations has led to a £1.5M a year cost saving which, Uren says, means the payback will be very quick. The Aldershot facility has now closed while the Heywood site is dedicated to fragrance and over-counter pharmacy. According to Uren, D80 is the only fully automated warehouse in Europe. He says: “You will see automation elsewhere, but this is the only one in Europe that has it all under one roof.”
The turnkey Knapp installation at D80 comprises proven components, fully integrated into a system providing high levels of performance and accuracy. The system is totally controlled by Knapp’s KiSoft software suite with WMS, WCS, ASRS and RF picking functionality. With the Knapp system consistently achieving +99.8% service levels, the automation is a cornerstone of Boots’ ability to ensure customer satisfaction.
Deliveries by Boots’ 220 medicine suppliers – to one of D80’s three inward docks – are by appointment with all the goods then inspected and logged onto the Knapp warehouse management system (WMS) using hand-held scanners linked to the WMS by radio frequency (RF). At this stage, the system recognises any items on back order and triggers a fast track for these goods directly to the appropriate picking station. Immediately following initial product identification, a small number of lines not handled by automation are diverted to separate systems. These lines include drugs that need temperature control – there is a two-hour limit to move such medicines into cold storage – and products such as fluids in flasks that are difficult to handle automatically.
All other products are transferred into barcoded plastic totes, of which there are 75,000 in total (representing eight days’ throughput). Uren comments: “We deliberately over-purchased because if we run out, we’re in trouble.”
These storage totes are automatically transported by intelligent conveyor from goods receipt to one of four TWG ‘Mustang’ automatic stacker cranes that operate at a speed of 5m per second and serve more than 42,000 bin locations. The Knapp KiSoft ASRS control has intelligent strategies to optimise the cranes’ performance while maximising the number of one-hit put-aways. The system stores totes in the racking at random during times of busy product input but then automatically relocates them into a more logical order – close to the individual product line pick faces – during quieter times.
The Knapp KiSoft WMS module knows at all times where all products are situated and will use the goods with the earliest production (batch) dates first, even if that product arrived at D80 after later batch items of the same product. Also, the system stores the manufacturers’ batch numbers and can trace any product batch in the event of a product recall.
All goods are stored in the ASRS system that serves the automatic and manual picking replenishment functions. The four ASRS aisles serve eight manual picking conveyor lines at ground level and three Knapp ‘A’ Frame automats – two of which are 60m long with the third being 20m long, ready for future expansion. The lower levels of the ASRS racks are configured as carton live storage (CLS), which allows the cranes to deliver totes directly to the pick positions that are mounted over and under the picking conveyor.
From these CLS locations, two operations are carried out. Firstly, the three ‘A’ frame order pickers – which are situated in the aisles between the four cranes and handle the 1,000 or so fastest-moving lines – are replenished. Secondly, slower-moving lines or bulk orders are picked manually, directly from the CLS into a Boots ‘picking’ tote with integral lid that is used to deliver goods to the retail pharmacies. This tote is directed to the required picking zone by the Knapp intelligent conveyor.
The manual picking is managed by scanning the dedicated barcodes on the pick-to totes, the product and the retail tote and following instructions displayed on the LXE hand-held RF terminals. LXE supplied Boots with 102 MX2 handheld terminals with handles. The terminals are economical and lightweight, making them ideal for semi-rugged environments. LXE also provided ten Lucent Access Points, working via active Ethernet, and 23 four-slot battery chargers.
The automatic order picking ‘A’ frames eject selected product from storage channels into a ‘virtual tote’ created on the moving collector belt which passes beneath them, collecting the goods and discharging them into retail totes at