United Biscuits sees capacity boost from crane upgrade

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United Biscuits has refurbished and upgraded 22 automated high bay cranes at its Ashby-de-la-Zouch distribution centre resulting in a 27 per cent increase in capacity, 45 per cent fewer errors and faster, safer repair and maintenance procedures.

The work was carried out at the 305,000 sq ft facility by Logistex, which also installed the original system.

The distribution centre holds some 58,000 pallet loads of brands including McVitie’s, Mini Cheddars, Hula Hoops, Jaffa Cakes and Jacob’s.

Products arrive from various manufacturing locations and are held for shipment to retailers and wholesalers in the UK.

During 2010 United Biscuits experienced more peaks than in the previous four years and identified a number of key performance areas it needed to improve to boost speed of response, flexibility and to accommodate retailers’ changing demands.

Under the code name “Raleigh” the company worked with Logistex to explore the options available to develop equipment, systems and infrastructure to meet or exceed customer demand and to raise productivity.

Without doing so United Biscuits could have faced the need to use external storage, which would have increased costs and reduced control.

Logistex proposed a hybrid system of upgrading and refurbishing the existing cranes, which would cost far less than replacement and could be carried out with minimal disruption to day-to-day operations. 

This plan also reduces the risk of obsolete component failure, which Logistex says is often the cause of much anxiety to management keen to keep meeting customers’ delivery expectations – which increases as systems begin to age.  

Losing functionality for a short time can be disruptive but extended downtime can have a far more serious impact to any service-focused business.

The project included replacing the original Siemens S5 controllers with the latest Simatic S7 PLCs, specifically designed for automated systems and with Profibus capability.

They are designed to provide a more powerful and improved real-time response with a larger program and data memory. 

They also feature a range of expansion modules that can be adapted to respond to further developments and changes in demand, key factors for United Biscuits.

Replacing the hydraulic controls with electrical systems provided a more efficient and controllable process and eliminated the product contamination risk and disruption of oil leaks. 

With health and safety issues an increasingly important factor, Logistex also installed on-board cameras, so staff can identify problems quickly and no longer need to climb up the crane to see what is required. 

Remote resetting is another new feature, meaning faults and errors can be overcome more quickly and safely.  In addition, a faulty crane can make its way back automatically to a P&D station for attention thanks to the new control software, saving additional time.

United Biscuits has monitored and measured the way in which the upgraded cranes have performed in the first few months and the effect it has had on the organisation. 

Individual crane movements have risen by a third, from a maximum of 22 per hour pre-work to 34 per hour on the machines with the new electric platens, with individual movements up to 35 per hour.

Errors have dropped by 45 per cent and crane availability has risen from 88 to 95 per cent. As a result, the upgraded crane zone is able to ship up to 1,050 more pallets per day, with 20 more lorries leaving every day.

The project was carried out over the summer of 2010, with individual cranes taken out of operation one at a time to avoid disruption or delay, and with work being done whenever possible during quieter times. 

The project was completed within a tight time frame in September 2010, in time for the next peak period.

United Biscuits’ Mike Howells says: “We have worked closely in partnership with Logistex over the past 20 years, during which time they have supplied our high bay automated crane systems and continue to provide an on-site maintenance team to support us… 

“They quickly grasped what we were looking for and could see the risks and the opportunities involved, including the need to stay operative throughout the programme as we could not risk delays or non-deliveries.”

He concludes: “We have what is in effect a new automated crane system using the latest technology and fit for a decade or more, but at a fraction of the price and virtually none of the disruption.  It sets new levels of safety and productivity and means we can continue to deliver on our promises and meet whatever demands the big retailers make on us.”

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