Automation specialists are coming up with innovations to meet changing demands in both retail and manufacturing supply chains. Malory Davies reports.
The high level of innovation in warehouse automation was one of the striking features of the UK IntraLogistics Awards which have just taken place. The winning entries all exemplify different aspects of the demands being place of warehouse systems by retailers and manufacturers in rapidly changing markets.
The Gold Award went to Knapp for its solution for John Lewis which has enabled the retailer to embrace the omni-channel revolution. While this is a very large automation project, its flexibility has enabled the retailer to keep pace with the shift towards online shopping.
Following the Christmas peak last year, JLP managing director Andy Street said: “The investments we have made and the new capabilities we have built in recent years in Distribution and IT have been fundamental in ensuring we successfully navigate this changing shape of trade.”
Still won the Silver Award for its clever combination of semi-automated pallet shuttles and fully automated reach trucks in a high density storage facility for a customer. To cope with volatile production volumes the warehousing system was designed for high transparency and flexibility. The solution allows the customer to be more flexible with the benefit of reducing labour at the same time. And the fully automated solution that can switch to a manual mode at any time.
The Bronze Award went to an innovative mini-load crane designed by Gebhardt European Conveyors Systems. The Cheetah has a mast constructed from a composite of materials, including fibre reinforced plastic. Like a modern high spec racing bike, this allows for a mini-load of strong yet super-lightweight design, reducing the weight of a typical mini-load from 3,000kg to 1,500kg. The benefit of this is seen in high acceleration – up to 6.5 metres per second per second. The stiffness of the mast offsets the need for anti-pendulum drives. And reduced positioning time adds to its high throughput.
Ingrid Lucas, senior consultant at Total Logistics, highlights the fact that the focus on e-commerce growth has led to development of sequencing technologies (eg despatch buffers) to allow timing alignment of automation capacity with despatch activity. “Technologies such as pocket or pouch sorters (developed from hanging garment technology) are likely to be used extensively in e-commerce environments as these allow flexibility for boxed and hanging items to be merged to feed packing benches. “Suppliers have improved conveyors and lift technologies to allow shuttle systems to achieve full capabilities allowing volumes to be flooded out of a warehouse in a shorter space of time, now increasingly demanded as service lead times reduce. Speed of simulation now has improved vastly, making theoretical verification of most scenarios possible prior to implementation of any automated installation.”
And Ben Wright, Total Logistics director, points out that newer systems based on drone technologies (not necessarily aerial applications) are likely to be at the forefront of current development and investment, including autonomous retrieval vehicles able to navigate within dense racked storage systems. “This may be ideal for spare parts operations and businesses with very high peak-to-average demand profiles.”
A key issue for anyone looking at automation is making sure it is used to maximum effect. Mike Hilton of TGW says: “As picking can use between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of all the labour within the warehouse, this is the area where automation technology can have the greatest impact. Unlike manual order picking that has the potential for human error, an automated storage and retrieval system can maintain 100 per cent accuracy 24/7.”
Maria Torrent-March of Europa Warehouse, says: “Order fulfilment and e-commerce businesses can certainly benefit from automation. In these areas automation enables companies to be more flexible. Changing market demands, seasonal peaks like Christmas or promotions can have a big effect on a logistics operation and even with high peaks in volume you still need to deliver the same quality of service. Automation takes some of the pressure off and narrows the margin for human error, especially during busy periods.”
Wright points out that localised automation tends to be prevalent where comparative labour costs are high, meaning there is often little in the way of logistics automation at manufacturing points.
“Evidence now shows companies moving to end-to-end automation within the warehouse walls, driven by the need to control operating costs in a growing market (to offset the growing labour bill) as well as the need to respond faster and more accurately to customer demand. Businesses are now looking to invest in returns operations to make processes more efficient. The increased level of volumes in this area has created a focus point, driving the need to keep costs low and to facilitate quick turnaround of returned product for order fulfilment.”
If there is one lesson from the online revolution, it is that logistics systems are facing a faster rate of change than ever before, and therefore flexibility is at a premium.
An automated system that is implemented today must and should have built in scalability to meet the users future business model, says Hilton. “As volumes grow, a greater level of automation and mechanisation is often required to meet volume demands and throughput growth.”
Lucas points out that designing for a potentially unpredictable future has inherent risks. “More long term thinking is needed to cater for a range of potential future scenarios and this applies to selection of technology equally. System failures are well documented and often result from single points of failure in design or lack of headroom capacity for growth. An easy answer may seem to be to invest in more capacity than required, however the financial hurdle created often invalidates the initial investment case.
“Modular technologies can allow additional capacity to be ‘bolted on’ when required, however the key is in understanding what technologies are appropriate to your business and what their limits are. Keeping things simple through straightforward design and use of robust and proven technologies tends to yield consistently good results. However there is a place for new technologies too as logistics operations become more complex with multi-channel operations introducing different service and order profile mixes.”
The importance of control systems should not be forgotten or underestimated, warns Wright. “Configurable software layers should be specified to allow modifications and updates in line with business changes, without necessity for large scale investment in re-coding.”
Case study: Automatic picking for pharma e-tailer
When Apologistics, the German pharmaceutical e-tailer, sought an automated solution for the picking of slow-moving goods and items difficult to handle automatically, Knapp developed a new solution.
The new Knapp-Store provides storage and picking of a wide range of slow-moving articles, as well as the handling of returns, automatically. It is modular in design, and can be used in conjunction with automated systems for fast-mover picking – such as A-frame ‘autopicker’ solutions with a central belt – or with manual picking.
Apologistics, based in Markkleeberg near Leipzig, started in 2004 processing 50 order and day using a manual system. It took delivery of an autopicker from Knapp for fast-movers in 2006, along with other automation equipment and manual fulfilment stations. By 2013 it was handling 7,000 orders a day and wanted to automate the picking of its slow-moving SKUs.
Knapp’s robotic solution is based on an ASRS concept. The Knapp-Store features two storage robots that operate from a mast that runs along rails secured top and bottom on each side of the store, much like mini cranes. Goods are not stored in bins but multi-deep directly on glass shelves, the distance between which is variable to suit the product range and achieve maximum storage density.
On entry to the system, products are manually positioned on a conveyor before being automatically scanned and stored. Items – including boxes, bottles and pots in various dimensions – are then picked using a system of two grippers which can move independently of each other, with picked items being placed in picking boxes that can be accessed from the outside of the store. The picked items are either consolidated with manually picked orders or can be fed directly from the picking boxes onto a central belt autopicker system.
The solution was installed within three months without disruption of on-going operations. It currently features two Knapp-Store modules, each 17m long, 2.5m high and 2.5m wide and storing some 32,000 articles. With aisles capable of being up to 20m long and 3.6m tall, a Knapp-Store has a maximum storage capacity of 57,000 items. About 550 articles can be stored and some 500 articles retrieved per hour. Installed at Apologistics at the same time were additional conveyor sections, new carton erectors, a weighing scale and the latest version of the autopicker control system. Knapp’s KiSoft WCS control software takes care of stock management.
Since going live last year, deliveries have grown to 8,000 per day and the system will be expanded by the addition of two further Knapp-Store modules. Apologistics also plans to install Knapp’s robotic fulfilment solution, Pick-it-Easy Robot.
Case study: Matalan moves to singles
Matalan, the fashion and homeware retailer, has been moving to a system of replenishing stores with a greater percentage of singles rather than with full cartons to maximise the potential for sales and to allocate inventory more efficiently.
Since opening its first UK store in Preston in 1985, Matalan has grown to trade from 200 stores.
The project ‘Moving to Singles’ involves transforming the stores replenishment operation from a system designed for handling and distributing full cartons, to one capable of picking and supplying in single items.
It required the application of automated warehouse technology from SDI Group Europe, part of Dematic, and a radical redesign of Matalan’s 320,000 sq ft Corby distribution centre.
Not only that, Matalan has deployed SDI automated systems at its new 575,000 square feet Galaxy distribution centre in Knowsley, Merseyside, where omni-channel fulfilment is performed on-site for store and e-commerce orders.
The task at Corby was to re-model the entire receiving, storage and sorter facilities for hanging garments, replacing now out-dated pin-chain Goods-on-Hanger (GoH) technology installed by SDI ten years previously.
The upgrade centred on the installation of SDI’s new HF250 overhead hanging garment conveyor system, which incorporates friction-drive technology, offering greater reliability and maximum up-time.
Matalan wanted to use the four-inch trolleys from the old system – refurbishing all 20,000 of them – and to expand the system with 15,000 new trolleys. Each trolley has the capacity to carry up to 8kg of garments, runs on a standard SDI Group Europe transport rail and is suited to being inducted into pockets for sortation and used for transporting hanging garments between areas.
The Corby project was started in September 2013 and installed by March 2014. Over the ‘go live’ weekend over 55,000 sets of garments were moved from the old storage area to the new storage facilities – a task that was completed 12 hours earlier than expected.
From the goods receiving bays, two inbound conveyors and a ‘boxed up and hang’ system convey goods to a routing tower and four, ten-lane GOH put away sorters. In total, some 35 HF250 trolley induction stations feed the sorters. On the outbound side, a 181 lane ‘store sorter’ accumulates orders for stores.
Following the ‘go live’ of the new system, work is now underway on refurbishing and upgrading the old storage areas. By completion in early 2015, the refurbished storage areas will have been integrated into the new automated materials handling operation.
Reconfiguring the Corby distribution centre prepares Matalan for the future. Receiving throughputs are estimated to peak at around 1700 trolleys per hour with an average of eight units per trolley, and picked and dispatched throughputs are expected to peak at around 1300 trolleys per hour, with an average of six units.
“The automated equipment supplied and installed by SDI Group Europe at Corby places Matalan in a strong position for future growth,” says a Matalan spokesperson. “We believe that by making a strategic shift to fulfil store orders in singles, we will be able to offer our customers a more rewarding experience – placing us in a stronger position for the future.”
SSI Schaefer acquires AGV specialist
SSI Schaefer has acquired a majority holding in MoTuM NV – a specialist in the development of AGVs and decentralised control technology.
MoTuM, based in Mechelen, Belgium, has experience in the development of customer-specific AGVs. It also has a strong position in the market for automation of standard warehouse trucks. The range includes automated stackers, reach trucks and VNAs. Due to the complementarity in the product offering of both companies, SSI Schaefer can offer tailored solutions that meet every requirement in the field of automated guided vehicles.
“SSI Schaefer develops and implements complete intralogistics solutions for customers across the globe. Systems involving automated guided vehicles are becoming an increasingly important aspect of such projects,” said Harrie Swinkels, managing director at SSI Schaefer in Giebelstadt.
“With MoTuM as our strategic partner, we can complete our product range in this segment. We can now offer an AGV portfolio designed for all picking strategies and link our storage solutions; from simple transport applications following the person-to-goods principle to fully automated picking. This means that the range of AGVs can transport cases, small totes, roll containers and pallets.”
Automated sorting centres for Australia Post
Australia Post has upgraded its Melbourne and Sydney parcel facilities -more than doubling its parcel processing capacity at those facilities – as part of a $2 billion investment to transform its operations. The automated sorting solution was designed and installed for both locations by Vanderlande.
Area manager Roald de Groot said: “Both solutions consist of several crossbelt sorters, which sort directly: into containers; on to extendibles for loose loading trucks; or into chutes for those items that need to be handled delicately. Another part of the solution is a fully automated material handling system for the containers.”
Clipper expands returns capacity at Selby
Clipper has boosted the returns capacity at its Selby distribution centre so that it can handle up to 850,000 returns a week. It chose LB Foster Materials Handling as principal contractor for the two-tier installation which is situated in a 60,000 sq ft area underneath a mezzanine floor. The solution includes conveyors for totes with a dunnage system running directly above it, together with 108 work benches which are positioned alongside the conveyors.
The operation, part of Clipper’s Boomerang solution, handles returned garments, footwear and accessories. Combined with the original returns processing centre at Selby, it can now handle up to 850,000 returns a week.
ALC for automated systems
Schoeller Allibert has launched a range of attached lid containers (ALC), pictured above, designed for use with automated systems.
Each ALC is manufactured to fit the precise dimensions required, and features bumpers on the sides to prevent containers jamming conveyors.
With a reinforced base, the containers remain flat to ensure close tolerances required by automated handling equipment at a lower weight.The ALCs have integral hinged lids with tamper-evident seals.