Automation- the vital component

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A shift to assembly work has transformed manufacturing, and Nick Allen reckons automation is now critical to fast replenishment of components for assembly.

In recent years, most providers of automated material handling systems have been absorbed by the huge demand from the retailer sector for solutions that can transform their supply chains from a store replenishment focus to full multi-channel capability.

That demand is still very much there. However, the manufacturing sector too has recently undergone a metamorphosis, where components are now commonly sourced from overseas for assembly into products closer to market.

This shift in the UK to assembly operations with far greater emphasis on mass customisation has placed a heavy requirement on manufacturers to invest in automated storage systems that can deal with the increased SKU ranges and higher storage density needed within their existing premises.

Steve Richmond, director of Jungheinrich UK’s systems and projects division points out that the strongest markets for automated handling systems have traditionally been those territories with a powerful manufacturing base, such as Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

Richmond believes manufacturing companies tend to have a much higher acceptance of automation. “Because so many manufacturing processes are highly automated the companies feel more comfortable with the technology and see automated storage and handling as a natural progression within their business. They want to automate from the production line to the loading bay,” he says.

The UK’s automotive and pharmaceutical products manufacturers are seen to be particularly enthusiastic about the operational benefits of automation.

However, Richmond admits, the market for large scale fully automated projects has been slow to recover. “After the global economic collapse, companies became nervous about any kind of high level capital expenditure and that uncertainty is still with us to an extent. The larger schemes are still there, but they are not abundant,” he says.

However, he sees a trend towards mid-level projects which can demonstrate a rapid return on investment, with many going for partial automation and hybrid systems that are part-automated and part-manual. “If designed correctly, semi and fully-automated solutions can be flexible and scalable to allow for future growth,” he says.

Shane Faulkner of Dematic sees one of the fastest growing areas for automated applications being the fast delivery of components to assembly work stations.

“As outsourcing overseas has grown, many manufacturers [in the UK]are becoming assemblers,” he says. “Their requirements for storage have increased due to larger order sizes from overseas suppliers. This often means a need for denser storage and so they are taking advantage of the height in their facilities.” He sees a greater use of automated storage and retrieval systems to improve storage efficiency and slicker processes for receiving goods.

“Because manufacturers are tending to move to assembly units there is a need to efficiently supply these stations with components,” says Faulkner. “So if you can reduce any non productive activities, such as walking to pick goods by bringing ‘goods to the person’ instead, efficiency is increased. The person doing the assembly work needs goods-to-hand and needs them to be replenished automatically,” he says. 

He highlights the fact that the trend for greater consumer choice is leading to an increase in the number of components required to create product variety. This mass customisation has broadened the SKU range for finished product and components and has introduced a need for greater use of automation at manufacturing sites to maximise storage and to efficiently control the flow of components to assembly stations.

Faulkner advocates the use of automated high bay pallet stores or mini-load systems to maximise storage density, but where there is a need for fast replenishment of components to assembly stations he suggests combining their use with a multi-shuttle system.

According to Hayden Smith, general manager, operational services Europe at SDI Group: “Using automated material handling technology between processes gives manufacturers a more consistent throughput. They know they have guaranteed transport times for an item moving from one point to the next, so they have a more consistent flow – which is critical in industries such as automotive where they are supplying customers on a just-in-time basis.”

At Magna Automotive, SDI Group has provided a T500 automated overhead conveyor system to move injection moulded door panels between various production processes, freeing up floor space for expansion of the business.

A two-floor mezzanine structure combined with a dynamic storage area capable of holding one and a half days worth of parts has enabled Magna Automotive to increase the number of panel variations for its OEM customers by 17 per cent, within the existing building structure.

The powered overhead conveyor system uses trolleys fitted with RF tags for automatically routeing door panels from the injection moulding machines where they are formed, to buffer storage within the mezzanine, where they are held before being called off for further processes such as laser treatment for creating crumple zones and other assembly activities. Movement of the panels throughout the factory, from formation to loading onto cradles for transport to the customer, are effected by the automated overhead conveyor system under the command of SDI Group developed control systems – created by the group’s Germany-based controls company.

Smith believes one of the most important aspects of any automated project within a manufacturing, or a distribution environment, is the smooth installation and integration of equipment without disruption to on-going operations. “Creating a meticulous plan, carefully co-ordinated with the customer, is absolutely critical to ensuring a successful outcome,” he says.

“We’ve found that many of our country operations in the US, France, Germany, Italy and other regions, are experiencing a demand for automated systems that can be expanded upon as the customer’s business develops. Automation is a great facilitator that has to be capable of being deployed in up-gradable phases as a business grows – and that means offering well designed systems that provide flexibility and a capability for future upgrades.”

Brian Whale, senior logistics consultant at Swisslog, believes manufacturers are looking to get more capacity out of existing facilities, “freeing up floor space by building mezzanines or by using high density storage or even third party logistics for storage,” he says.

In the food and drinks industry he sees an increase in use of automated bulk systems to store raw materials of plastic and glass prior to use in the production of bottles/packaging and, like Shane Faulkner, identifies the use of mini-load systems in assembly operations for items such as electronic products.

Whale sees a resurgence of interest in automated guided vehicles (AGVs), a form of automated material handling technology that was prevalent in the 1980s and early 90s. “Most of them tend to be upgrades to existing systems,” he says. “A lot of the systems were put in during the 1980s and they are now reaching the end of their lives, and it’s difficult to see them being replaced by anything other than AGVs.”

However, he says, in the car industry overhead conveyors are more commonly used to move such items as car bodies down the production line.

But what about the reliability of automated systems, has this moved on in recent years? “I believe it has,” says Whale. “If you are prepared to invest in preventative maintenance schedules, which a lot of people forget about when they are buying capital equipment, then there is no reason why modern equipment shouldn’t be highly reliable.”

He points out that manufacturing plants have to operate with a higher degree of resilience than perhaps a retail warehouse. If a system fails “a retail warehouse can always throw people at it to get out of a problem. Whereas with manufacturing, if it stops then everything stops,” he says.

Whale believes the relationship factor is often forgotten when companies buy capital equipment. “With automated systems you are setting up a lifetime relationship. So it’s important you have that two-way trust.”

In brief- Real-time location hits a million

Zebra Technologies has delivered its one-millionth real-time locating systems tag, RTLS, demonstrating the growing need for operations visibility. 

RTLS helps customers track parts in complex manufacturing environments, such as automotive production warehouses, and provide farmers with the ability to monitor animal behaviour and movements.

Jill Stelfox, general manager of Location Solutions at Zebra, said:  “Whether tracking operational efficiency, improving quality control, reducing costs or even monitoring movements in the farmyard, RTLS technology is powering multiple industries and improving their business performance.

“We are working with our partners on innovative ways to take the technology further and extend the use of RTLS tags. We don’t know where our two-millionth tag will take us, but we are already working on new, exciting projects in the automotive, manufacturing, healthcare and sports sectors.”

Würth to open automated centre

Würth Group, the German fastenings manufacturer, is due to open its new logistics centre at Künzelsau later this month.

The site, which provides additional capacity of over 60,000 order lines will mean Würth will be in the position to meet customers’ wishes faster.

Last year, Würth  chose the Knapp OSR Shuttle system for the project with a contract value of €60 million. The warehouse has a storage area of 17,000 square metres with space for some 100,000 containers and 6,000 pallet storage locations.

More room for savings

The European automotive industry still has considerable potential for savings. In the area of transport logistics alone, companies can save up to nine per cent of their costs, according to Global Supply Chain Solutions, the German 4PL.

This can be achieved through clear standardisation, harmonisation and automation of logistics processes, in particular, the process improvement in cooperation with selected carriers.

G-SCS recently launched a comprehensive services and software portfolio onto the market based on its G-SCS Integrated Tower, which is coordinated through all the software applications.
Brose picks SSI Schaefer

Automotive supplier Brose chose SSI Schaefer to for the design, planning, and turn-key building of a logistics complex for their manufacturing plant at Koprivnice in the Czech Republic.  The development includes an automated high-bay warehouse and one automatic miniload storage system that form the backbone of material supply in production. The high bay has some 9,700 storage positions for storing Euro pallets and lattice boxes. The miniload has about 23,500 tote storage positions.

Case study- Beating the cube

Ice cream maker, Fredericks Dairies, has pushed the limits of the ‘cold cube’ to 95 per cent utilisation through new technology.

Fredericks Dairies makes ice cream products, manufacturing under licence for brands such as Cadburys, Del Monte, Vimto, Tate & Lyle, Britvic and Kraft.

With ice cream being a highly seasonal product, the dynamics of the business requires manufacturing to run throughout the year, building up stock in advance of a peak in demand during the summer months. Such a heavy reliance on the storage of product at -28 degrees C makes the cost of maintaining and running a cold store a principle consideration that impacts the bottom line. So, when Fredericks Dairies came to review its storage options, following steady expansion of the business, the pursuit of maximum cube utilisation called for a bold decision on adopting leading-edge technology that had never been applied before.

In 2010 the company took the decision to build a new 47,500 sq ft cold store extension at Simonswood and chose a ground-breaking idea from RediRack’s automation division – RediTechniX – that could deliver 95 per cent cube utilisation.

The idea outlined to Terry Haigh, operations director at Fredericks Dairies, was of a revolutionary automated pallet storage, retrieval and sequencing solution – using a patented RediLogX pallet buffer and sequencing system. By leveraging the high storage density offered by automated shuttle technology, the RediShuttle system combines with the RediLogX pallet buffer and sequencing device to provide 80 per cent more storage space over a VNA system while reducing running costs by a similar amount.

“The RediRack system could give us 13,000 pallets in the same cube and payback would be much faster. The benefits clearly stacked up. We could see the high storage density would give us the lowest cost per pallet in terms of energy usage in chilling the cube and being a ‘black box’, with no lighting required, we could see further energy savings. Then, as the system is fully automated, we knew we could run the site on the same staffing levels,” says Haigh.

In October 2011 the specification was agreed and installation started in the November. By April 2012 the system was commissioned.

Designed for a throughput of 600 pallets in and out over an eight hour shift, the system is composed of five levels served by five shuttles and five satellites – although, higher throughputs can be achieved with a greater number of satellite and shuttle combinations.

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