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Things are changing. Top retailers are facing far more sophisticated challenges within their supply chains following the wide adoption of multi-channel strategies to market. No longer is it a matter of picking cases or pallet loads for a typical store profile; variance in store format – convenience store, town superstore, hypermarket or e-commerce channel – requires a wider range of order profiles. SKU proliferation, sequenced deliveries and speed to shelf are all playing their part in driving investment in warehouse automation technology.

Labour costs and availability of labour are for many the biggest issue, and regulatory restrictions on manual handling have become far more stringent in recent years. This coupled with a greater desire for accuracy in product picking and a drive to improve customer service has placed a greater emphasis on automation within the warehouse. But in a fast moving retail market, flexibility of design is paramount.

According to Philip Makowski, marketing manager for Northern and Western Europe at Dematic, ”SKU proliferation can make the use of a conventional pick face, with a dedicated location for each SKU, inefficient. The same applies to sorter based solutions that require a dedicated chute for each retail store – this may become unfeasible in situations where the number of retail outlets is growing quickly.”

The solution, says Makowski, is to use high rate goods-to-man (GTM) systems for picking split cases and small items, and order assembly systems, a concept that delivers a range of benefits in full case picking applications.

GTM systems certainly reduce the time spent by staff travelling between pick locations and, of course, there is no need for a dedicated pick face location for each SKU, which helps to reduce the footprint of the building.

Dematic”s high rate put stations are for fast moving product lines and are directed by a pick to light system backed up by a sequenced supply of products from storage. Pick rates of up to 450 lines/1000 items per hour are said to be possible. High rate pick stations work well for slower moving product lines and are based on multishuttle storage and retrieval engines. Pick rates are up to 700 lines per hour, up to 10 times faster than traditional slow case picking solutions.

A recent example of where a shortage of labour has prompted an investment in automation is at video-game retailer, Game Stores. In the video games market having the latest blockbuster game in stock at the retail outlet first is a major competitive advantage.

”We needed to increase shift patterns and had begun to struggle with volume as we were competing with other local employers such as Royal Mail”, says Tony Lewin, head of logistics at Game Stores. ”We already used conveyors and flow racking but we wanted a more efficient picking operation. We also wanted to improve accuracy”.

Game Stores worked with Vanderlande Industries on an integrated system that offered the most efficient picking method for each product category. As most product is presented in DVD sized cases, a cross belt sorter was used. Bulk quantities are stored in conventional racking or moved to a cross docking area, where they are used to replenish ”put pick” and ”fast pick” operations.

A Variostore miniload system with a capacity for 16,000 totes over two aisles, and able to handle four totes in each cycle, is used for smaller quantities and items that are needed for sortation.

The Crossorter is a cross belt sorter suited to handling large quantities of small items. This travels a total of 143 metres and feeds 202 chutes, each of which equates to a store order, with orders picked in two waves throughout the day.

Integrated systems

The entire operation is managed and controlled by Vanderlande Industries” Vision warehouse management system, closely integrated with a JDA business system.

Lewin is confident that the new distribution system (which handles almost twice the volume of the old system on 10 per cent less floor space) has future proofed the logistics operations. ”The sorter will handle the vast majority of SKUs and almost everything we will handle in the future, but we still have several ways of picking any product and can change depending on volume and urgency – we”ve covered every eventuality,” says Lewin.

However, not every application of warehouse automation is based on fast throughput. FKI Logistex has just started the installation of a new, high-density, automated handling system for the British Library that is designed to reduce their storage footprint, increase productivity and have an extraordinary life expectancy of 70 years.

The British Library receives a copy of every book and journal published in the UK and is currently building a new, low-oxygen storage unit in West Yorkshire. The FKI Logistex system combines 262 linear kilometres of fully-automated storage with seven mini-cranes, six workstations and 140,000 custom made containers.

Jerry Woodhouse, managing director, FKI Logistex Europe, explained, ”Every inch of space is used to its maximum capacity. To this end, the containers were custom-engineered to within five per cent tolerance of the handling equipment, and also had to be constructed from special material to eliminate the chemicals associated with conventional plastics, which would be harmful to the collection.”

Productivity gains

Automation of warehouse operations can have a dramatic impact on the productivity of a site, enabling much faster throughput, greater volumes and all with lower labour usage. A good recent example of this is with Volkswagen Original Teile Logistik, which delivers spare parts for Germany”s leading automotive manufacturing company, VW Group.

The existing logistics network spread over 12 logistics centres was, as part of a rationalisation project, reduced to seven. Each OTLG logistics centre supplies spare parts to dealers for Volkswagen, Volkswagen Trucks and Audi within a geographic area, and the dealer network is set to expand to include Seat and Skoda dealers. A new automated distribution centre opened in September 2007 and since then the range of goods handled has increased 70 per cent to 103,000 articles yet the number of employees has grown by just 40 per cent – all owing to a material flow system designed and installed by TGW Logistics Group.

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