Many logistics operations are going through dramatic change to respond to new retail patterns, and those changes are increasingly being reflected in the use of warehouse equipment. Alex Whiteman reports.
Little and often – it’s the phrase that sums up the biggest shift in the logistics industry. And the knock-on effect of this can be felt all along the line. The shifting paradigm has hit the warehouse sector, and in some cases the make-up of a retailer’s high street presence.
“The growth of the convenience store has brought about a rise in the number of regional distribution centres and a shift away from NDCs,” says Peter Ward, CEO of the UK Warehousing Association. “This has led to a change in the make up of deliveries. Pallets are being delivered direct into stores. As are roll-cages.”
The result of this change on the warehouse is in some instances existential. Smaller pick faces are being sought to service the final mile of delivery. Where once a supermarket would serve its customers from a single NDC, a single centre half the country away cannot supply the scale and breadth of local convenience stores.
“This pressure is not only being felt by the supermarkets,” says Ward.
Marks & Spencer introduced one million square feet into the supply chain with the opening of its mega facility at Castle Donington. The purpose of this was to provide a fully automated warehouse servicing its online proposition. But as the online market continues to grow, the feasibility of servicing every customer via one mega national distribution centre is likely to decline.
As customer numbers increase, the little and often approach of modern consumer habits is going to put the same pressures on the online world as it has on high-street/out of town retailers: “The growth of online is seeing omni-channel retailers having to rethink their strategies,” adds Ward.
Choosing which way to go can be a problem in and of itself. There has been a lot of clamour around the prospect of automation. But as Jason Bryce, managing director, Cube Europa Storage, says, there is a cost element to be considered here. Cube Europa Storage provides 150,000 sq ft of storage space with capacity to handle 12,000 pallets at any one time.
“For our operation, the current cost through investment for automation just isn’t worth it,” says Bryce. “However, we are always on the look out for innovation.”
Bob Gill, director at Total Logistics, says that at the moment the cost of automation has remained static.
“But as the cost of people power rises, the cost of the technology will inevitably decline,” says Gill. “Presently, the viability of automating a 250,000 sq ft warehouse is reliant on the owner/operator taking a longer term view on the situation.”
Gill says that 15 years ago, the focus was on a warehouse that flowed: “Now we are looking at buyers procuring product from China, having it shipped here where it is palletised to be stored in a huge warehouse.”
However, he thinks there has to be a smarter way of handling this than having a man in a van unloading it from said van onto a conveyor belt to be palletised.
“There is a lot of research being carried out into how automation can achieve this smarter approach to loading and unloading vehicles,” Gill says.
Where Total Logistics is currently seeing growth though, according to Gill, is the way in which the warehouse is designed: “This is from automation all the way down to conveyor systems,” he says. “But each is equally important to get right, and it is important that systems brought in allow flexibility for the future.”
Cube Europa Storage recently invested £100,000 in revamping its existing warehouse space. The injection of cash allowed for the implementation of new nine metre high mezzanine floors.
“In addition, we have changed the racking to a closer pick-face,” says Bryce. “However as we offer storage space to a variety of customers we had to be careful on how we restricted access – the wrong design would restrict the type of client we could serve.”
As such, Cube Europa Storage segregated its warehouse with half the space dedicated to narrow aisle storage. The redevelopment also saw the introduction of a scissor lift, which Bryce says has increased picking efficiency by between 45 per cent and 50 per cent.
“At the moment we have a single sister lift, but we will be adding an additional one to the fleet,” he adds.
It is not only the smaller spaces that have redeveloped the layout of the warehouse, and the way it is picked, says Ward who points to Amazon developing its facilities to suit manual labour picking for smaller items.
Picking is a key aspect of the “little and often” shift. And, according to Gill, the systems coming to market are getting smarter and smarter with every passing iteration.
“There is a continued push towards voice picking,” says Gill. “This is as accurate as hand scanning, but it frees up the operators hands.”
With companies sourcing new ways to sweat every drop from their assets, including staff, improving efficiency in the work force is vital. Gill says that one way is to continually bark at the staff “work faster,” but perhaps says the more sensible option for employers is to consider “how do we improve efficiency?” and improved technology is a prime mover.
At present, Cube Europa Storage is operating a hand picking system with the use of barcoding systems: “We have an array of clients across a multitude of industries, from fashion to office furniture,” says Bryce. “And it is somewhat surprising to find that some are still not interested in bar coding items.”
The process of introducing more and more bar coding into the operation is to streamline it. There are some areas, says Bryce, which the firm cannot deal with at the moment: namely the loading and unloading of vehicles as this is often down to the client.
But efficiency improvements have been made in other areas.
“Investment in floor and machinery [Cube Europa Storage also bought in several narrow aisle trucks] has maximised space,” says Bryce. “In addition, three years ago we invested in a pallet wrapping machine.”
Previously, all pallets had been wrapped by hand. Since introducing the wrapper, Bryce says the firm has achieved a 40 per cent saving in the amount of wrapping used – as the machine gets this extra from each individual pallet wrapped.
How have these improvements benefitted the operation at Cube Europa Storage? In the last 18 months, Bryce says that business has seen a 35 per cent rise.
“There is always an influx of seasonal work for us just after April,” says Bryce. “But now we are seeing people looking to extend contracts as the population becomes happier to spend.”
One client has a contract for 2,000 cubic metres of space, while there are also negotiations with another potential for a five year contract that will take 30,000 sq ft of space.
“If we get the go ahead on this one, we will have to rethink the design of the space,” says Bryce.
“It is about making the right call at the right time,” says Gill. “Implement new systems when doing something new – there are phases of adoption. But it will always be harder for those with an existing site.”
Case study: Increasing readiness and maximising accuracy
European pharmaceuticals wholesaler Leopold Fiebig & Co chose TGW to develop a logistics system to handle up to 80,000 different products and up to 2,000 orders a hour. The goods-in area has six workstations where workers scan the goods for identification before registering the batch number, the best before date and the quantity. In the meantime, an overhead light projects a light cone into one of eight compartments in the tote to guide workers to the correct storage position for the goods. The tote is then stored in the warehouse or directed non-stop to a picking workstation.
The automated mini-load warehouse is equipped with 18 Commissioner AS/R machines including two for cooled pharmaceuticals. There are 30,000 tote storage locations in the AS/R system and 23,000 in the Commissioners. Two nine metre high Mustangs retrieve goods on one level to supply A-Frame automatic picking automats, simultaneously withdrawing the empty totes.
Light controls and scanners are used to check that the products are put into the correct storage channel of the A-Frame. The ejector of each channel fires up to six packages per second onto the conveyor belt that passes underneath the channels arranged in the form of the capital letter A. Fiebig was also one of the first users to adopt TGW’s KingDrive conveyor technology for the handling of its returned goods.
Safety: Protecting staff and profit…
Working smartly in the warehouse also means working safely – and safety makes good business sense.
Nowhere is safety more important than in the operation of fork lift trucks. Operators who speed or drive recklessly are not only endangering themselves and those on foot, they invariably cost their employers in terms of damage to stock, racking and the truck itself.
The Fork Lift Truck Association has a Safer Site programme – an on-going, step-by-step safety programme designed specifically for the fork lift truck industry that any company can implement.
The FLTA points out that while engagement at the very highest level is crucial, grass roots involvement is almost as important because it is often staff who work on or around forklifts who are best placed to highlight dangerous practices, know how they happen… and how to avoid them.
These principles have been applied by all nine of this year’s FLTA Safe Site finalists, each of whom has made great strides towards establishing a self-policing environment where risky, and costly, behaviour is simply not tolerated by the working community.
Cambridgeshire-based G’s Fresh Beetroot were the outright winners having instigated a host of safety initiatives. These included installing a traffic light system with two way operation, where both pedestrian and driver can turn the system to red, ensuring segregation. Pedestrians are also protected by fitting blue spotlights on trucks to improve visibility and a new portable sign that warns drivers that pedestrians are present in an aisle. It has also invested heavily in testing trucks and staff training, while a web-based health and safety system has been introduced, incorporating smart phones and tablets.
The solutions introduced by the Safe Site finalists might be innovative, but they are also “real world” and transferrable. This means that regardless of the size of your site or the size of your fleet, there are techniques and changes that can be implemented by everyone.
Find out more at the FLTA web site: (www.fork-truck.org.uk)
The nine finalists were:
Metsä Wood UK
NHS National Services Scotland