Automated system solves staff shortage

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Cycling and fishing equipment retailer Shimano has boosted capacity at its European distribution centre after deploying an automated warehouse system with shuttle transport vehicles from Savoye.

The 108,000 sq ft distribution centre in Nunspeet, the Netherlands handles more than 25,000 different items. Around 70 per cent is dedicated to cycling equipment, including components and accessories, while the remaining 30 per cent covers fishing goods such as rods which are stored in 2.3m boxes.

Previously, the warehouse was fully manual with goods being picked from racks with the help of mobile data terminals, in addition to a pallet warehouse with narrow aisle trucks for replenishing the logistics centre.

As part of its redevelopment and expansion plan, Shimano had already prepared the warehouse space for further growth, but realised it would be impossible to cope with the additional volume required to supply more countries with its existing human resource capacity. It was already operating a two shift system, but was finding it increasingly difficult each year to find warehouse staff in Holland.

As a result, Shimano first began investigating ways of automating processes in 2004 and after discussions with a number of suppliers originally began looking at an automatic small parts warehouse with storage and retrieval machines, but due to the limited capacity per aisle and the lack of flexibility the plan was never put into action.

In 2007, Shimano started looking at automation again after hearing about a modular and scalable system for automated container storage using mobile shuttle transport vehicles that
can travel along racks.

“It was the system’s flexibility that we were particularly taken by,” says Ed Guichelaar, logistics manager at Shimano, “but we feared that the conveyor systems could pose problems.”

The company began working with Savoye to implement its shuttle-based automated warehouse Picking Tray System (PTS), an automated container warehouse system that operates using autonomous shuttle vehicles.

“We needed to be sure that the controls and the physical systems are well organised and that every product in storage is guaranteed to reach the goodsto- man picking station at the right time, as ordered,” adds Guichelaar.

Following a comprehensive preliminary simulation, Shimano implemented a system consisting of five aisles of 40m in length which could store about 15,000 totes on two different heights, containing 20 shuttles. The levels are connected by lifts and roller conveyors transport the products in containers and on trays to two order picking and one refilling station.

The lifts are powered by ecofriendly supercapacitors, which were originally designed for use in hybrid cars.

Varying size
Slow moving items are only stocked once in the PTS, while there is at least one container per aisle of fast moving items. Due to the varying size of goods Shimano uses two different container sizes which can also be divided up into nine sections. Items that are too large for at least seven to fit in a container, and very small items are still picked manually.

The PTS is now reaching the required 300 order lines per hour and picking station several times a week, but Shimano aims to be achieving this throughput several times a day. But in order for that to happen various improvements in organisation are required, such as storing items that are often ordered together in one subdivided container.

The company also plans to replace the need to press a button on screen to confirm each picking operation by a voicecontrolled system. This would allow Shimano to add some 50 more order lines per hour and picking station. There is also space for a third picking station which would allow for further growth, and more shuttles can be added at any time.

Shimano expects a return on investment within five years, but in hindsight the company would allow more time for the start up and staff training phase. David Brouwer of Dutch HR company Yacht, which helped with the project, says: “The staff also need to become accustomed to the new system. Looking back from where we are now, it is safe to say that it takes at least six months before everything is really running smoothly.”

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