The fast and the furious

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Logistics companies are looking toward automation to address challenges such as globalisation of goods flows, lean supply chains, and multi-channel retailing. Rising land prices and the scarcity of labour also continue to stimulate the development of automated systems.

As a result, companies are having to support multiple store formats and e-commerce, handle smaller orders, increase cross docking, deal with more volume on the same floor space, manage availability of manpower, and provide IT integration.

Although automated systems are proven and well accepted, there’s still scepticism regarding whether they’re cost-effective. Steve Richmond, general manager of Jungheinrich UK’s systems and projects division, says: “Mention systems integration and materials handling projects to anyone involved in warehousing and logistics and the chances are they will immediately think of large sheds with equally large price tags.

“While this may be an understandable and, in some cases, realistic view to hold, the reality is that there are many small and medium sized sites where state-of-the-art multi-product systems are delivering significant financial and operational benefits. But for any multi-product project to be successful, it’s essential to choose a system provider capable of integrating a range of solutions – manual, semi-automated or fully automated systems.”

Gordon Smith, chief executive of SDI Group, says automation technologies are providing better value for money, as prices are being driven down.

Philip Makowski, Dematic’s marketing manager for northern and western Europe, says: “In a competitive, globalised market, opportunities for premium pricing are limited. Attention has therefore focused on driving down operating costs throughout business – and the supply chain is no exception.”

Makowski reckons investment in automation is also being influenced by environmental concerns – in particular the need to reduce packaging. At the same time, health and safety regulations are placing more stringent limits on manual handling operations.

All these factors need to be combined with new standards of flexibility. This means systems need to be able to handle a range of different order profiles. “The major supermarket chains now have to service a retail portfolio that extends from convenience stores to hypermarkets, as well as growing e-commerce operations. This results in a diverse array of orders. To optimise efficiency, companies are increasingly looking for single, integrated systems that can fulfil these needs,” says Makowski.

The ever-growing need for more flexible systems means automation designers are churning out more and more advanced modular systems, which can be easily adapted to business growth.

Savoye Logistics has responded with its newly developed Magmatic Modulo – an advanced version of its original Magmatic, designed in 1994 – which will be officially launched this summer. The vehicles are small and lightweight, use little energy, and will help double the number of pallets per square metre used in a manual system.

Savoye’s newly developed Picking Tray System, to be launched alongside the Magmatic Modulo, uses shuttles powered by super capacitors, which use up less energy than batteries and don’t emit fumes.

Latest developments in technology at Dematic include High Rate Goods To Man (GTM) Systems for picking split cases and small items, and Order Assembly Systems for full case picking applications.

Two types of High Rate GTM are available – High Rate Put Stations, which are tailored to fast moving product lines. Directed by a pick to light system, staff carry out a series of orders at the same time, fed by a sequenced supply of products from storage. This pushes pick rates up to 450 lines/1,000 items per hour.

The second type – High Rate Pick Stations – are suited to slower moving product lines and use Dematic’s Multishuttle storage and retrieval engines. “Pick rates are up to 700 lines per hour, up to ten times faster than traditional slow case picking solutions,” says Makowski.

Dematic’s order assembly solutions are pull systems where cases are delivered on demand to a pack station to assemble dispatch units. They incorporate a pallet store, automated or manual layer picker to break down full pallets, and a Multishuttle buffer feeding high rate pack stations.

Sequencing the order in which cases are pulled out of the Multishuttle to the packing stations, helps create store friendly dispatch units across a range of order profiles, to help companies deliver to a range of retail formats from the one system, increasing the flexibility and reducing the costs of supply chain operations.

Makowski says these assembly systems deliver up to 500 per cent gains in productivity over traditional systems.

Split case and small item picking systems can be fully integrated into order assembly systems. In such applications, completed totes are returned to the Multishuttle from the pick and/or put stations, and then forwarded to the order assembly stations for consolidation with the full case picking operation.

“Order Assembly Systems are particularly well suited for companies that build multiple-product dispatch pallets to a diverse range of sales channels. Typically this includes grocery supermarkets, general merchandise retailers, and food and beverage companies that supply the major retailers and have route operations.”

High performance order picking systems, such as Vanderlande’s Compact Picking System, hold out the promise that customers have a later cut-off time for submitting orders and can still be guaranteed to receive their order the next day.

Order picking can benefit particularly from investing in automation, because it’s labour intensive and makes up the largest share of all distribution centre operational costs.

Swisslog’s Andy Blair reckons more thought should be given to what part of an operation is particularly suited to automation. “We should get away from thinking total automation and concentrate on implementing and integrating sub systems within an operation where they add most value.”

Automated cranes, miniloads, shuttles, conveyors and AGVs are all well developed, robust technologies, he points out. “It is the application of the right technology or combination in the right circumstances that will provide the benefits for users. We are particularly seeing more situations where AGVs provide a cost effective solution to internal transport.”

Price says: “As stock control becomes more accurate, downtime and buffer levels are reduced and the ROI is usually seen in six to 18 months.”

The boom in internet shopping has forced many retailers and their logistics service providers into a fundamental rethink of their warehouse design.

Richmond says: “Faced with falling distribution volumes but increasing order frequencies, the ability to flex picking cycles and prioritise urgent orders is critical to winning online customers.

“Retailers with standard warehouse installations will be left scratching their heads and wondering where they went wrong as more and more of their sales come from internet-savvy consumers who insist on next day delivery of single item orders, and as a result, traditional bulk stores are giving way to facilities with greater numbers of picking faces and increased picking efficiencies.”

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