Automation makes a comeback

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“Pretty buoyant at the moment,” is how Simon Tomlinson, director of consultants The Logistics Business, describes the market. “Some suppliers are struggling to cope with the level of enquiries.”

However, says Tomlinson: “In the UK there appears to have been some polarising of attitudes. The well publicised problems experienced by Sainsbury’s and others have put some people off. Even if they personally understand why those problems occurred and are confident that they will not be repeated there is still a sense among some that it would take a brave person to automate right now.

“Others have almost taken the opposite view and taken lessons from these projects to improve the chances of success for their own. This nervousness is also reflected in the attitude of some of the automation suppliers who have become much more cautious – maybe that’s not a bad thing.”

Steve Simmerman, vice-president of marketing and business development at Swisslog argues that attitudes are changing in favour of increased automation. “Several key factors are driving the increased focus on implementing automation to improve overall supply chain performance and efficiencies.”

Global competition is a key factor, he says. “More and more products being manufactured and sourced from different parts of the world such as China and Eastern Europe. With this fundamental shift in supply chain dynamics, companies are forced to look at ways to decrease costs continually not only on the manufacturing side of the business, but on the distribution side as well.

“Supply chains have become increasingly more complex and difficult to manage. This level of competition is increasing at a very rapid pace. Companies are forced to focus on their core competencies even more than they have in the past. Great manufacturing companies are outsourcing logistics, great logistics companies are outsourcing manufacturing and great product development companies are outsourcing both manufacturing and logistics.

“Global outsourcing will continue. This will place even greater demands on the logistics side of the business – whereby the strategy will be to move goods as efficiently from the point of receipt (in most cases the shipping ports) to the point of consumption (the retail store or consumer) with minimal ‘touches’. In this scenario, automation not only implies material handling automation techniques, but software ‘automation’ as well.

“Visibility, planning and logistics execution software is a vital component of any complex, automated supply chain. Software (and reliable data) is the essential tool that enables automated material handling systems to operate efficiently. Software will also be a critical tool in terms of eliminating labour costs, delays and improving quality of goods and information flow. Software is a fundamental element of automation return on investment.”

In addition, he says, labour costs are rising everywhere and with increased social and healthcare costs alone, companies are struggling to justify having large workforces employed and are looking for ways in which automation can help avoid many of these costs.”

Land costs continue to rise in most major geographies, says Simmerman. As this trend continues, companies will look for ways to increase storage density, minimise real estate holdings and create more efficient distribution ‘machines’ aimed at moving product in a more efficient and more cost effective manner, while maintaining service and quality levels.

Other considerations include consolidation across major industries which means dramatic increases in material flow and volume. Traditional manual distribution systems and techniques simply do not support these increases in material flow, says Simmerman. And then there are regulatory demands – Food bio-terrorism, food safety, US FEDERAL DRUG ADMINISTRATION requirements are all examples where regulatory bodies are imposing more and more demands on suppliers. Complete audit, track and trace, recall capabilities are essential and automated material handling systems along with software automation are being implemented to help minimise risks in these areas.

Tomlinson agrees that steadily rising cost and falling availability of people and land have always and will continue to be the driver. “As DCs get bigger the problem gets worse and so most of the big retail DCs now have some element of automation. It is becoming the norm rather than the exception.”

“Pick By Light continues to develop and some of the early flexibility problems are declining as the technology is applied more cleverly. We are increasingly seeing PBL units mounted on trolleys and picking trucks. When combined with automated pick face replenishment this can offer a very flexible solution.”

“The biggest opportunities are in the solution design – how standard components can be used in an intelligent way to create more flexible solutions. There is still a big problem in the way most automation companies approach system design. The design process starts with data analysis.

“Designers tend to take a set of data from a fixed period and then apply lots of averages to distil it down to a small number of key performance metrics. The problem with this is that averages remove the true picture of peaks and troughs ( it has how a system performs at peak that most determines its success) and fixed data set tends to mask the variations in activity that naturally occur in most businesses. The leads to people believing automation to be inflexible. It is not the fact of automating a system that leads to inflexibility but the design process. At The Logistics Business we have developed new interactive data analysis techniques (based around a software product developed by us called i-flow) which get around these problems and ensure that the true dynamics of a business are taken into account and the appropriate level of flexibility designed in.

“Another factor is that the more successful projects appear to be the ones where the customer has taken ownership of or at least been heavily involved in the design process either directly or through the use of consultants working as a part of their team. Where customers leave it up to the automation suppliers to simply provide a solution more problems seem to occur,” says Tomlinson.

Steve Simmerman points out that the market in general is demanding, better, faster, cheaper, smaller, more flexible, and more rapidly deployed solutions.

“The market is demanding solutions to problems that years ago, we did not even consider. Shipments, containers, pallets, layers, cases, inner-packs, individual selling units all represent opportunities for improving the movement and related data for these various levels of material. We are seeing a tremendous demand for improved layer, case and unit picking and shipping systems. In addition, the mix of these levels of material handling are increasing as well – in the past a customer may handle pallets and cases….today they are forced to deal with pallets, layers, cases and individual units in response to their customers demands. While we tend to focus on the material handling side of things, do not forget the associated software and data automation demands that these changes bring. The market demands open, flexible and highly configurable software solutions.”

There have been suggestions in some quarters that technologies such as voice picking could present a challenge to automation. However, Tomlinson argues that the two are complimentary.

“For low to medium picking rates voice offers many advantages especially when combined with automated pick face replenishment. In high pick rate environments Voice can be too slow and people seem to prefer other forms of RF based communication, particularly pick by light. Some users though are prepared to accept the performance limitation for the improved accuracy it gives.”

Steve Simmerman of Swisslog agrees. “We see voice picking (as well as voice receiving, QA, returns processing, etc.) as a complimentary technology in terms of automation. We have implemented a number of voice based picking systems in conjunction with automated material handling. Voice technology is re-emerging as a leading technology in many areas of material handling systems and automation. All of these technologies including voice, traditional RF/bar coding, RFID, material handling automation play vital roles at different points across today’s complex supply chain environments.”

Tomlinson points out that most of the technology used in automation today has been around for 40 years or more.

“Most of the innovation that has emerged since then has failed to make long term in-roads – AGVs have almost died out, monorails have not really made serious inroads although there are few useful applications, fully automated or robot picking is just too expensive to be justifiable against current labour costs, satellite and other deep lane storage systems have died out because organisations are now much more focused on throughput rather than long term storage, etc,” he says.

“Where there has been development over the years is in performance improvement – speed and accuracy are steadily improving – and reliability. Warehouse management and control systems are also becoming more standardised and function rich although their cost is rising,” says Tomlinson.

Simmerman highlights developments in a number of areas including: RFID technology, voice technology, and pre-configured, scalable software solutions. These include warehouse management systems, warehouse control and material flow control systems, diagnostic and monitoring systems with real-time alerts.

Other developments include standard material handling system interfaces that allow for ease of implementing and even ease of switching automation sub-systems as demands change. The ability to integrate multiple material handling sub-systems from a variety of vendors is critical, Simmerman points out. Quinn Glass has opened one of the most advanced production plants in the country at Elton near Liverpool, including a fully automated high-bay warehouse complex for the intermediate storage of glass containers. The warehouse provides a storage capacity in the region of 280,000 Chep-style pallets. 24 stacker cranes supplied by Stöcklin operate around the clock and achieve up to 430 cycles per hour, in spite of the long distances they are required to travel.

Production capacity of the new plant will be in the region of four million bottles a day, equating annually to more than 1.3 billion units.

The high-bay warehouse, measuring 180 x 290 m, started operations in the second half of last year. Stöcklin won the order to implement the project as general contractor.

Chief executive Urs Grütter says: “The customer was convinced by the creative and robust concept, proven equipment quality, competitive pricing and not least by the high proportion of in-house manufacture, guaranteed performance data, and our capability to manage this huge project.”

The new plant will operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. During peak periods around 340 pallets per hour will reach the high-bay warehouse. Simultaneously, up to 365 pallets per hour will be removed from storage, 240 of which will be directed to the despatch areas.

A total of 2.6km of conveying systems incorporating 1,300 drives is installed on two levels of the warehouse consisting of roller and chain conveyors, transfer modules, turntables, elevators and shuttle cars. Across a three shift operation, palletised loads of filled and empty glass containers are moved around the system linking the various production and filling lines with the warehouse and dispatch zone where outbound loads are consolidated by high performance shuttle cars.

The conveying system also includes routes to and from other zones such as the receiving area for the import of bottles from external production in Derrylin, Ireland and customer specific fabrication and packaging areas.

A complex warehouse management and control system with built-in redundancy is connected to the Quinn Glass Host AS 400 system located in Derrylin, and via an independent Ethernet network to the material handling equipment.

The workhorses in the high-bay system are the 24 automatic Master stacker cranes manufactured by Stöcklin. These 33m high machines each dedicated to an individual 290m long crane aisle are designed for double deep pallet storage and load weights of up to 1,250kg. Reaching speeds of up to four metres per second during longitudinal travel and 0.8 metres per second during vertical lift a total of up to 430 double cycles per hour are possible across all the aisles, in spite of the long distance travelled.

This story continues on page 26To guarantee fast and reliable delivery of the widest range of products, Greek pharmaceutical company Ionas Stroumsas decided to build a new central distribution facility and commissioned Knapp to design and implement the 4,500 sq m warehouse.

It is now in operation and features a high-bay pallet racking area, Knapp’s order storage and retrieval system for picking of slow-movers, two auto-pickers for picking of fast-moving products and RF technology for paperless, manual order picking. The new system accommodates 15,000 skus and 1,700 orders a day are fulfilled.

The containers for the high-bay system and the storage bins of the OSR – a total of 700 per day – are filled at six manual stations and fed to the storage areas by a conveyor system. The high-bay store features 12,000 pallet storage locations and is served by three stacker cranes, which supply goods to flow racks for replenishment of the two, high-performance SDA 2000 A-frame auto-pickers. Each auto-picker consists of two lines, each 36m in length and featuring 480 channels.

With a separate ejector for each channel, replenishment is fast and simple; the channels are filled by hand, with empty containers being scanned and returned automatically to the high-bay. The channels measure either 2.5m or 1.9m in height, giving a substantial storage capacity. After passing through the check station of the fully automatic picking area, order containers proceed to the manual or semi-automatic picking zones.

The four manual picking stations consist of flow racks with integrated conveyors and radio-frequency terminals which are worn on the arm. After scanning the barcode on one of the containers, the required order products are displayed on the operator’s RF terminal. The operator is guided through the rack lines on the shortest possible route, thereby minimising the picking time.

The picking process is completed by scanning the container once again.

Slow-moving products are picked using the OSR system. After a final manual check, the containers are automatically labelled, the relevant invoices are ejected into them and they are fully automatically lidded and strapped. The conveyor system then transports the containers to one of the 92 dispatch ramps, for delivery.

Heatrae Sadia has invested in an automated forming, welding and piercing process line for the production of stainless steel cylinders as part of a major plant modernisation at its Norwich base. The system, which operates on a 60 second cycle, produces cylinders of varying lengths. At the discharge station of this automated process, the cylinders are ejected onto an unload station.

The close proximity of the discharge station to a main gangway together with a restrictive headroom put restraints on transferring the cylinders across the gangway. Heatrae Sadia invited CI Logistics to find a solution.

CI Logistics decided to use an electrified monorail system with elevator units at load and unload end of the monorail. The carrying media between the elevator stations is a single powered trolley unit. The carrier mounted below the powered trolley unit is of a calliper type, designed to embrace the cylinder in a horizontal plane. The loading elevator is constructed so that in its lowest position the load-carrying beam sits below, and is able to pass through the process unload station. When the monorail system receives a station occupied signal from the process line, the elevator rises to its ultimate height presenting the cylinder in a position for collection by the powered trolley unit, waiting in position prior to the load elevator. The trolley unit moves so the carrier embraces the cylinder on the load beam, at which point the elevator lowers to leave the cylinder engaged in the carrier. From this point the trolley unit reverses direction to transport the cylinder to the unload station. Story continued from page 24

From 1 April, Siemens’ logistics automation systems will appear under the Dematic name in the UK. Dematic will be the successor company of the former Distribution and Industry Group of Siemens Logistics and Assembly Systems.

Last year, Siemens announced that The Distribution and Industry Division and its associated products and customer service would be spun off into a separate company – “Dematic” from 1 January. It said the new company could be more flexible in responding to market needs and enter into country specific partnerships. In the future it will be reported in Siemens as “Other operating activities.”

Pick-by-voice was one of the highlights of Dematic’s appearance at LogiMAT in Stuttgart last month. Dematic is placing more emphasis on pick-by-voice solutions for order-picking in manual warehouses to raise order picking throughput and reduce error rates.

It says the pick-by-voice technology is ideal because, in conjunction with intelligent voice management software, it also takes over tasks such as control desk functions, route optimisation, inventory processes and resupply control. SSI Schaefer has completed a £1m contract for the fit-out of a warehouse in Rushden, run by DHL Exel on behalf of Harcourt Education.

Schaefer products implemented into the warehouse range from: PR600 narrow aisle pallet racking, Regal 3000 shelving, a large timber-decked mezzanine floor, powered conveyors and ASRS Pickomats.

The Narrow Aisle Pallet installation will accommodate more than 30,000 pallets 14 metres high, providing a buffer stock for the pick face shelving and the ASRS.

The shelving on the first floor of the mezzanine, is set up for multi-location storage, enabling quick handling, which is ideal for the storage of the Harcourt range.

Two SSI Schaefer Pickomat machines have also been installed.

Business Post has awarded Welconstruct a contract to design and install bespoke enclosures for a number of sorting machines at its Leeds, Runcorn and Greenford distribution centres. Paul Hutchinson, Business Post’s group property manager, says: “Our goal was to enclose and partition several sorting machines safely and securely within our various distribution centres. Each enclosure measured 24 metres x 7 metres and 2.5 metres high with incorporated composite partitioning, ceiling, power and data plus air conditioning and fresh air pressurisation.

“The projects were meticulously planned over a six week period, completed within budget and time. The dedicated project manager kept us informed of all developments and the on-site foreman was available whenever required. Most importantly, we were able to continue operating throughout the installation to minimise of disruption.”

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