What’s in store?

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Getting the storage and retrieval system right is taking on a new significance as companies seek to optimise operations to meet changing market conditions. Operators need to ask the right questions including: what kind of goods are being stored; what is the stock turnover; and is automation worth considering?

Percy May, director of sales and marketing for FKI Logistex North America, says: “There are a number of factors that help justify going to Automated Storage and Retrieval System-style solutions over conventional forklift solutions. Land costs are an ever increasing factor, as are labour costs. Another factor is the shift pattern of the operation. Naturally the more shifts, the better justification for automation. If throughput rates are consistent and are always full pallets in and out, then these are other good indicators of the viability of crane technology.”

And Phil Steeds, sales director at TGW, says: “Automated storage and retrieval systems will provide solutions for the ever growing application of e-fulfilment as the rapid growth in online orders reaches an order throughput where manual fulfilment will struggle to meet the required service levels. The cost and availability of suitable labour added to the requirement for flexible working hours to meet the peaks of multi-channel activity will pose a problem for many operations. This is a problem that can be obviated by automated systems, which also deliver these high service levels required to retail stores also as part of a multi-channel retail operation.”

Mike Alibone, business development manager at SSI Schaefer, says: “Successful warehouse and distribution operators in 2009 will be those that operate effective management systems that will enable decision makers to think analytically and overcome challenges in the warehouse constructively. Selecting the right storage and retrieval system is crucial for this.

“There are a number of determining factors that should be thoroughly explored when selecting the best fit storage and retrieval system. Look at the product profile and how well it lends itself to be handled by a particular ASRS by assessing the size and weight of single units or multipacks, pallets/unit loads and what the end result needs to be in terms of product sequencing and delivery container contents identification.

“Throughput of product is another factor – consider if the stored product turns 100 per cent daily or weekly for example – an ASRS is more efficient at higher rates of stock turn. Efficiency of the ASRS, price and return on investment is vital when looking at systems to invest in – identifying what savings can be made and how quickly.

“If a distribution centre is not a new development, storage and retrieval systems must be able to integrate effectively into an existing operation – a must for all companies looking to extend the life of their existing facilities, removing the necessity for high capital investment in new properties.

“Finally the supplier of any storage and retrieval system should have a good proven track record, providing reliable and innovative solutions with demonstrable longevity.”

Steeds points out that: “One of the most interesting areas where automated storage and retrieval systems can help streamline logistics operations is that of multi-channel retailing. Automated systems can be developed within a distribution centre to service online retail as part of the process of improving the replenishment of retail stores using the same stock, thus reducing stock duplication. The DC would then pick items to go into a separate pick/pack area for online orders before being shipped.

“Many retailers have ‘stores within their stores’ for brand franchises and these require their own specific stock deliveries to be collected from the brand and sent to the store.

“Furthermore, increasingly, multi-channel retail strategies are enabling online orders to be delivered to a store for the customer to pick up. Not only is this growing in popularity with customers, as it can be more convenient for them, but it also reduces the costs of delivery for the retailer and creates more footfall into the store leading potentially to more sales. With these multiple channels there is an opportunity to better manage a pool of orders. TGW has installed a conveyor-based solution at the Boots.com operation, run by iForce at The Fort in Birmingham. While Boots.com offers direct home delivery it also offers a ‘collect from store’ service.”

May says: “With well designed conveyor systems, the whole dock operation can be improved, thus reducing fork truck and personnel operation. In addition, the crane and conveyor technology will reduce product damage.

“There are many different methodologies associated with load handling devices, multi-deep storage and palletising and de-palletising that can have an impact on the solution,” says May. “The biggest current constraint for any solution is the design and quality of the GMA pallet. The sooner this is addressed, the sooner the new technologies can be applied effectively and benefit the distribution industry in the USA.”

And Steeds points out: “While delivering online orders to a retail store eliminates the ‘last mile’ problem of delivery, there can be ‘last 50 metre’ conundrum for the retailer in terms of finding products in the store.

“There is an opportunity in multi-channel retail applications for automated systems to keep track of the products coming in and make them easily available for customers coming through the door. Having a mechanical portal behind the counter holding say a 1,000 parcels accessed by a PIN, rather than have staff find a product on the shelf, could help reduce distribution costs by 50 per cent. There are automated storage and retrieval systems already available on the market that can perform this function. TGW’s Commissioner is an automatic storage and retrieval system with a lifting beam design that allows products to be stored within the smallest possible footprint and can be used at building heights of up to 12m in combination with different load handling devices for double-deep storage.

Alibone says: “Reduced supply chain costs through the role of automation within the distribution centre will become more prevalent during 2009 and beyond with automation providing significant added value services and order/dispatch sequences that reduce cost throughout a company’s whole cost base. 2009 is likely to see a deferment of investment into new facilities as a result of lower economic growth but instead see a rise of investment into automated facilities that can integrate within current facilities reducing unit distribution costs.

And, he argues: “The silver lining to the cloud of 2009 is that retail discounters and e-commerce operations buck the trend of a downturn in the economy. Their continual growth will drive investment in automated systems to support new demands within the warehouse and supply chain environments.”

May says: “Automation, correctly applied, has benefits in any industry. Distribution has been slow to change because of the high investment and the desire for flexibility. New storage system cranes that provide aisle-changing techniques can provide the ability to expand as the business does. Another area of development has been where case picking is required. Robotic palletising devices are proving to be a more acceptable option.”

Steeds agrees: “Through continued developments in technology and modular design we will see automated solutions play an increasing role not only in the e-fulfilment sector but many other areas requiring high service levels and high throughputs.”

Racking considerations

Edward Hutchison of BITO points out that the choice of the right racking system requires a great deal of preparation and operators need to ask the right questions: which goods are to be stored; which load carriers will be used; what are the dimensions and the weight of the storage goods; which stock turnover can be expected; is automated servicing reasonable?

“Conventional pallet racking systems provide the basis for many of these concepts such as drive-in pallet racking, carton live storage with pallet buffer stock on top and multi-tier racking with integrated walkways. Classic pallet racking remains the most commonly used method for storage, allowing convenient access to every pallet. Configurations can be easily modified and extended, offering a versatile solution for relatively low investment cost.”

Hutchison also points out that live storage for both cartons and pallets is on the increase, particularly for man-to-goods order picking situations. “Higher investment costs are more than compensated by improvements in working efficiency. Live storage gives, within a short distance, a greater density of pick locations for small parts, with a saving on floor space in the region of 15-20 per cent being a reasonable assumption. Time is saved also; depending on the application, travel times for order pickers can be improved by up to 66 per cent. Order pickers can rely on a constant availability of goods.


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