Online boost for automation

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The retail sector has seen some high profile automation projects in the past couple of years often driven by the move to multi-channel retailing. Malory Davies reports on developments in the market.

Online sales have been the saviour for many retailers over the past couple of years as they have struggled with otherwise weak markets. And online is also offering new opportunities for warehouse automation with a number of high profile installations such as the John Lewis multi-channel distribution centre at Milton Keynes.

David James, managing director of Knapp UK, says: “The retail sector is reacting to the new, multi-channel challenges confronting it, which are increasingly being met by investment in warehouse automation.”

“There is no question that warehouse automation can effectively and efficiently help to manage the sheer variety of requirements which permeate all aspects of warehouse operations. Our industry is being consistently challenged to design innovative products and solutions, which clearly are being procured because they are justifiable when dealing with a widening range of products, provided in a multitude of ways via different channels,” he says.

Vanderlande says it is seeing many requests from multi-channel retailers for warehouse automation. “What we see is that when volumes increase retailers are setting up dedicated sites for their e-commerce operations instead of combining it in one facility. Reason is that the business processes are totally different. We have several examples of automated systems for dedicated e-commerce warehouses, but also for combined warehouses.”

And Swisslog’s Andy Blair points out that: “Effectively, multi-channel retailing is pushing the pick process back onto the retailer. Whereas retailers used to stock shelves for customers to pick in-store, this pick is now being carried out by the retailer. High speed picking and sortation systems are therefore particularly attractive.

“In addition, retailers are driving cost out of their businesses by pushing stock holding back to suppliers, meaning that DCs are becoming more like high-speed flow through operations than stock holding centres,” says Blair.

David James highlights some of the complexities that multi-channel adds. Goods might be picked in pallet, tote, case, colli or unit quantities, depending upon whether they are destined (‘pushed’ or ‘pulled’) for a really big store, a big store, a small store, a store in somebody else’s store or a home shopper.

[asset_ref id=”1300″]”The home shopper might receive their order in one of the aforementioned stores, at a collection point or at home. The product may leave hanging, folded, as it arrived, specially wrapped or packed and on or in a pallet, roll-cage, tote (possibly on a dolly), carton, bag or envelope. It may even arrive with rose petals and a personalised message. In certain warehouses, a third of products that have left come back again, get reprocessed and leave again but probably not in the same way they left before.”

Customers are looking for cost effective “cheap” ways to reduce costs and increase efficiency, while at the same time hitting the politically correct “green” button, says Brian Whale, senior logistics consultant at Swisslog. “Furthermore, many are looking to extend the life of existing facilities by several years, to eliminate the high cost of acquiring new property.”

That’s a theme taken up by Steve Richmond, general manager of Jungheinrich’s systems and projects division, who has seen increased demand in the area of mini load cranes for handling cartons and totes. “In the right application, high performance mini load systems can deliver products to picking and packing stations at tremendous speeds, outperforming many conventional, alternative systems. The increase in demand for the mini load product is one I expect to see increase significantly in the next few years.”

“Automation is often perceived as expensive and inflexible, but this is not necessarily the case,” says Whale. “Due care and diligence should be taken during the design phase to ensure that suitable solutions are proposed. By selecting a systems integrator with a wide product range available, the end user is more likely to receive a solution that best suits their application. It is this that offers the smaller operator the chance to consider automation.”

But there are other factors that can easily be overlooked. Cimcorp points to such factors as reducing the carbon footprint of an operation by having fewer staff driving to and from work, reduced operating costs.

Jez Tongue, partner at @logistics Reply, also sees opportunities for partial automation which can contribute speed to certain processes, while ensuring a level of continuity and flexibility is maintained in conjunction with remaining manual processes.

“Mix and match (automation vs manual process) can certainly be made to work and can deliver both speed and flexibility. There is no one-size-fits-all answer and any investment in automation should be subject to rigorous justification criteria. Key to all of this is the software which drives the automation both at the control system and the warehouse management system level,” he says.

Vanderlande sees a trend towards higher levels of automation such as goods-to-man systems for item picking and fully automated case picking systems. “These trends are driven by the following customer needs. Customers indicate that it is very difficult for them to get staff to work in the warehouses (demographical developments). Also they have a high staff turnover. This creates a need for high pick performances and short learning curves. They want to offer employees an attractive working environment with minimal health & safety risks. This means ergonomics is a very important attention point. Further it is difficult for them to acquire large pieces of land to lay-out conventional manual DCs (especially in urban areas). This creates need for warehouses with higher storage density. Finally there is a need to improve the accuracy. In a typical manual food retail DC the accuracy is 98 per cent. With a throughput of 100,000 cases per day, this means 2,000 cases per day are wrong. This equals two full truckloads per day that are wrong.”

And Knapp’s David James reckons there is huge potential for improving the interaction of automation and the human element of a warehouse. “Our vision-directed picking system, KiSoft Vision, takes a major step in this direction by using augmented reality technology to visualise information through a head-mounted display at the exact time and location it is required by the picker, while also calculating his optimal route through the warehouse. In operation at the distribution centre of Magnum Medical in Tallinn, Estonia, the system has achieved a quality level of six from Six Sigma, ensuring 100 per cent error-free order picking.”

The case of the driverless lift trucks

Automated guided vehicle specialist E&K has converted three Linde K-Range VNA stacker trucks so that they move without drivers around luggage manufacturer, Samsonite’s new warehouse in Oudenaarde in Belgium.

The trucks follow inductive guide wires set into the floor and are fitted with an E&K laser-based navigation system so they can free-range off the wires into other areas of the warehouse. In this case, the trucks guide themselves by triangulation using reflectors mounted on     the warehouse walls. Data communication between AGVs and the E&K controller is via a wireless LAN.

The trucks are also equipped with telescopic forks and pallet profile control, which checks that the dimensions of the pallets coming from production are correct and therefore that they can be stored in the automated warehouse.

Germain Ghys, Samsonite’s logistics manager at Oudenaarde, says: “Our ever increasing range of plastic suitcases and trolleys was becoming a logistical challenge.

“To cope with the multitude of products, we rented additional storage space in the immediate vicinity some years ago. However, this solution was not cost-effective, was too   slow and inflexible, and in any case had reached its capacity.”

In 2007, Samsonite decided that a new, dynamic bulk storage and order picking area was required for slow movers, primarily to release capacity for handling fast moving items.

It chose the E&K solution for the dynamic storage area after rejecting three other options: fully automatic cranes, manually operated VNA trucks, and manually operated reach trucks.

Now, says Germain Ghys: “Our operation is extremely efficient, providing a significant competitive advantage. We are constantly advancing and look forward to a successful future.”

Kimberly-Clark’s network of the future[asset_ref id=”1301″]

Kimberly-Clark has gone down the automation route as part of its “Network of the future” initiative to reduce complexity in its European distribution network to improve service levels.

In May, Kimberly-Clark opened a second automated warehouse at Chorley in Lancashire, effectively consolidating the activities of five smaller warehouses in the North West.

The first automated site was at Northfleet in Kent a 60,000 pallet space facility fitted with double deep racking to 18 pallets high and served by seven cranes using 196m of track.

At Chorley, Kimberly-Clark worked closely with Norbert Dentressangle to design and implement an automated system which was viable within a traditional low bay 311,000 sq ft warehouse. Through the replacement of traditional pallet racking with high-density, ASRS drive-in racking, the pallet capacity of the warehouse was improved by 25 per cent.

An investment of more than £7 million has been made in the automated storage system for the warehouse in Revolution Park, which is able to hold more than 60,000 pallets of products. Each pallet contains some 960 rolls of Andrex toilet tissue, or 7,200 Huggies nappies.

European supply chain director, Peter Surtees said: “While the capacity of our two RDCs is exactly the same, the two sites are very different and we have worked closely with Norbert Dentressangle to identify and implement different solutions to ensure maximum efficiency and space utilisation in each location.

“In both cases, the implementation of an automated warehousing solution has enabled us to rationalise our warehouse footprint and allows us to ship product straight into our RDCs for delivery to the customer, without the need for intermediate storage.”

Kärcher picks TGW

Alfred Kärcher, the cleaning equipment supplier, is extending its logistics centre at Obersontheim in Germany with a system planned by Miebach Consulting and implemented by TGW.

Apart from a new pallet storage system, the extended logistics centre will include an eight-aisle automated mini-load warehouse with 95,000 storage locations used to supply a new high-performance picking area. A dynamic shuttle system for 5,500 order locations will consolidate and sequence the picked order totes and deliver them to the packing area.

To handle the required performance of up to 2,000 storage and retrieval movements per hour, TGW will be installing its Stingray shuttle system. An extensive tote conveyor system with intelligent empty tote management will connect the storage and picking areas with the packing area.

The extended system within Kärcher’s logistics centre will go live at the end of 2012.

Bargain retailer sees value of automation for Liverpool site

TJ Morris, the company behind the Home Bargains retail brand, called in SSI Schaefer to expand the distribution centre at its headquarters in Gilmoss, Liverpool.

The retailer, which plans to expand its store network from 200 to 500 over the next seven years, used consultants from Total Logistics to develop the expansion plan for the site which needed a significant increase in bulk storage capacity. The decision was also made to make the whole picking operation more efficient and operator friendly. To augment the existing storage while accommodating the growing volume of palletised products, a 26 metre high bay extension to the distribution centre was built.

The new extension, able to house more than 42,000 pallets, has 11 pallet cranes that feed products to more than 1,000 ground level picking locations and deliver replenishment orders to an adjacent mini-load crane-based tote storage system, built to hold slower moving items, providing an additional storage capacity of up to 28,000 totes and 804 picking stations.

Pallets arrive either pre-labelled or are labelled upon receipt and quickly inducted on to a pallet conveyor system, which has been designed to handle up to 300 pallets per hour. Two pallet checking stations, capable of processing 150 pallets per hour, check weight and identify broken blocks or bottom boards. A conveyor feed system into the high bay is mounted on a mezzanine floor with elevator access to avoid any obstruction to the picking operation.

Pallet cranes feed full pallets to case-picking aisles directly below the high bay storage locations, where cases are picked manually. Full pallets are routed by conveyor to the dispatch area or to replenish stock in the mini-load storage system. At the mini-load receiving stations pallets are placed upon hydraulic lifts, ergonomically designed to help operators break down and decant items into storage totes. The storage totes are then placed on a tote conveyor, which delivers direct to a mini-load crane docking station from where they are picked up and put away in the racking via a crane.

Operators, fed by a constant supply of conveyed empty totes, voice-pick products to fulfil multiple orders which, when completed, are placed on a take away conveyor and sent to a goods-out marshalling area, where they are automatically sorted by dispatch route for waiting vehicles.

Back to the future

The decision to improve existing automation instead of buying a completely new system is one of the big trends in 2011, according to Martin Elliott, UK sales director of Savoye. “While there are still plenty of ‘big ticket’ projects in the UK and Continental Europe, the rise in retrofitting has been remarkable in recent years.”

Elliot quotes figures from AMHSA which show that while the number of multi-million pound automation projects have reduced over the past five years, the number of smaller projects has increased.

“As the recession began to bite, capex budgets inevitably reduced and logistics managers had to make the best of their existing kit. We are also seeing more volatility across several markets, which is discouraging business from investing in major automation projects, as they want to retain flexibility in uncertain times, even if it costs them in overall efficiency. In the last year, we have seen retrofitting projects increase by around 20 per cent, which is significant.”

Elliott believes modernising existing systems has not gained the recognition it deserves. “A typical example of this is an FMCG business that was having problems with its crane system and was subsequently being hit by late delivery penalties. The original installer has long quit the scene and was no longer interested in maintaining the system. We were able to establish a service-based relationship with the drinks company, which led to us enhancing and upgrading the cranes.”

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