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Automation projects in retail have made most of the headlines in recent times, but in many ways the manufacturing sector is even better territory for logistics automation projects. Malory Davies looks at developments.  

The past few years have seen some of the biggest names in the retail world installing automated systems in their warehouses – Boots, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer for example. But automation in manufacturing logistics has tended to be lower profile. Mike Alibone, business development and marketing manager at SSI Schaefer, makes the point that in many instances the use of automation depends if the manufacturing operation and warehousing/distribution operation are in the same place.

“We see more instances of automation being implemented in the warehousing/ logistics operation as a result of it already being used in manufacturing when the two sites are coincident. Note that much of the manufacturing automation revolves around robotics and that this is moving into the warehousing/logistics operation as a result (only where applicable eg robotic palletisers/depalletisers for totes and some cartonised goods). The drinks manufacturing industry is a good example.”

Milosz Majta, DELMIA Apriso product manager at Dassault Systèmes, points to two broad categories of warehouse automation: that done by manufacturers to optimise their material flows and stay lean with their operations, and that done by distribution centres tasked with delivering semi- and finished-goods to their next destination, be it a retailer, wholesaler or final end user.

“Each of these categories are heavily reliant on automation, as a means to cut costs and improve efficiency. I can’t see this activity or focus going away – there is a never ending, relentless focus on these two topics, which has become necessary for long term survival. Interestingly, the growing “Internet of Things” transformation, often called the fourth industrial revolution, is impacting warehouse automation.”

Steve Richmond, director of Jungheinrich Systems & Projects Division, points out that manufacturing companies tend to have a 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.” “Some countries have always been more pro-automation than others and the strongest markets for automated handling systems have traditionally been those territories with a powerful manufacturing base – such as Germany, Switzerland and Italy,” he says.

Alibone highlights automotive as one sector showing an appetite for automation. “We are seeing the automotive sector especially ‘waking up’ to, and benefiting from, automation into two areas: pre-production, in which parts required for line-side assembly are stored and picked automatically in sequence (e.g. via ASRS, especially totes stores in conjunction with mini-load cranes) and also in finished spare parts stores for distribution to the aftersales market, where there is less likely to be full automation but a combination of pick-by-light and conveyor systems.

“One heavy industrial manufacturer we have just signed a contract with has, in the above manufacturing context, ditched a multi-tier parts storage shelving system in favour of an ASRS mini-load crane-driven picking system.

“We are also seeing an upturn in enquiries for low level automation from the light engineering industry, which relies on small parts storage with delivery to assembly workstations. Simplified vertical storage (ASRS) units which use trays (e.g. the SSI Schaefer LogiMat) are becoming more popular with these operations as they are proving to be economical in terms of using ‘wasted’ vertical space in a manufacturing stores area, thus allowing more economic use of existing space without the need to move extend a building.”

Frank Hasleden, logistics solutions manager at Toyota Material Handling, says: “There is currently pressure on all sectors to improve efficiency; however technology manufacturers will always be early adopters along with food producers and processors as they already use automation.”

And Cimcorp points to the automotive tyre industry, the automobile manufacturing and food and beverage manufacturing sectors as having the greatest appetite for new automation solutions. Richmond agrees that automotive manufacturers are becoming particularly enthusiastic about the operational benefits offered by automation – and he also points to growth in the pharmaceutical sector.

“But,” he says, “regardless of the sectors in which they operate, all companies want the same from their handling system – improved productivity and efficiency, reduced costs and greater picking accuracy and enhanced customer service levels.” Majta also agrees, pointing out that manufacturers in the medical device industry are now tasked with ensuring compliance with the FDA’s unique device identifier (UDI) rule, which means they will have to provide greater detail of traceability for their production processes.

“This requirement means better tracking of warehouse operations and supplier content, which means an investment in warehouse automation would make sense. “Another industry that could be now “primed” for new investment in warehouse automation is the automotive and supplier industry. There have been a string of recall announcements lately in the news – these are symptoms of a shift that has occurred in this industry – a shift that is now requiring better visibility and global traceability – including across warehouse operations. So, it would make sense for these manufacturers to now consider an investment in new warehouse automation systems,” says Majta.

For manufacturers it is no longer enough to produce a great product – customer service is an increasingly important factor. Alibone highlights this with an example from the motor industry: “We are seeing automation requirements by the car manufacturing industry being driven by the demand for new cars, to cut production times and respond more quickly to full order books. In turn, this leads to a higher likelihood of automation being used in the distribution of spare parts to the aftersales market. This is the most prominent example we have encountered.”

Returns can be an issue in some businesses. Majta points out that the important question is: “What is causing the return?” “Is there a machine that is trending out of specifications, such that products are failing too frequently? This type of knowledge is needed to find long term solutions to excessive returns. The implementation of a warehouse automation system that can collect and distribute this information is your best choice, and could be worthy of justifying the ROI to make such an investment.”

The emergence and utilisation of big data, mobility, the cloud and enterprise collaboration are all shaping the relevance of manufacturing logistics technology. Majta says: “As you consider new solutions, you really must evaluate each of these criterion and decide how well the proposed new solution is capturing these capabilities, and how well it is leveraging them. For example, from a collaboration perspective, does the new solution offer a way to seamlessly collaborate with other users and other machines in its eco-system? If not, you might need to be replacing this system sooner than initially considered. The emergence of machine-to-machine technology as part of the Internet of Things transformation is having a radical impact on how manufacturing operations are performed and improved. This impact is so significant, that systems lacking this capability might be obsolete in half the time of predecessor systems, as the rate of technological change continues to accelerate,” says Majta.

Hasleden highlights the fact that the cost of storage is a key driver for manufacturers, especially if they want to eliminate offsite storage and distribution. This leads towards high density solutions, such as BT Radioshuttle – a patented load carrier for handling pallets in high density racking. Even 3PLs can benefit from this approach as it can help them contain cost in their contract with the manufacturing client.” Andrew Kirkwood, group vice president EMEA at JDA, sounds a note of caution.

“Demand is becoming increasingly less predictable and more complex. In this environment, automation is not necessarily the answer. Instead, we’re seeing investment in optimisation technology, which enables processes such as demand planning, picking, packing and labour management to become much more efficient, driving down costs and enabling much greater flexibility in meeting fluctuating demand.”

Nevertheless, both Richmond and Hasleden see growing interest in flexible, medium cost systems. Hasleden says: “We see a growing interest in low to medium cost, flexible automation, such as automated trucks, as the technology means that these kind of solutions are easier to implement and also easier to adapt to changes in the operation. Flexibility is the key here.” And Richmond also points out that while manufacturers are giving the automated handling sector reason for optimism, third party logistics service companies remain slow adopters.

But this too may be about to change. “But, the changing face of the retail sector driven by the sustained boom in online shopping has meant that many third party logistics companies are processing smaller orders with higher values. Some form of automation is ideal for these kind of operations,” he says.


TECHNOLOGY: SDI launches tilt-tray sorter 

SDI Group has developed the LS900 tilt-tray sorter – a mid-range carton sorter capable of handling a wide variety of loads from packages and plastic bags weighing up to 35kg. The LS900 has been deployed at George at Asda in the UK and at third party logistics company, Eurodif, in France. Using Cognex camera scanners combined with SDI technology and in-house developed control software, travel speeds of up to 1.1 m/second are achieved, offering a capacity to sort up to 5,500 items per hour. The design and modular construction allow for flexibility in the way the sorter can be configured to specific needs – such as tray sizes, tray shapes and the number of chutes. SDI chief Gordon Smith says: “This is a break-through in tilt-tray sorter design that delivers high configurability, a robust and easy to maintain format, a minimal foot-print, fast sort speeds, high capacity and importantly, great versatility.”


CASE STUDY: Automation on the line

GKN Driveline, the specialist in automotive driveline technology, has been using Cimcorp assembly line technology at plant at Köping in Sweden since 2003. GKN works in partnership with vehicle manufacturers such as Jaguar Land Rover, Volvo and BMW to develop driveshaft and geared component technologies and requires high quality assembly lines that are able to manufacture precision-engineered products, day after day. The factory employs 850 staff in the manufacture of the all-wheel drive parts of the driveline, meaning power transfer units, rear drive units/ modules and final drive units. Cimcorp also targets car assembly with its 3D Shuttle system, which was designed with the demands for more frequent and smaller deliveries in mind. It says: “The development of complex car assembly plants have proved to be an ideal use for the Cimcorp 3D shuttle where individual component kits can be assembled using the flexibility of the system”, pointing out that it is space efficient and flexible with the ability to hold a wide range of SKUs and provide accurate control and real time inventory recording.


SUPPORT: Toyota launches automation team

Toyota Material Handling UK recently launched its new Logistics Solutions team headed by Frank Hasleden to be responsible for managing automation products and projects. This includes established solutions like the BT Radio shuttle high density storage plus new developments in semi-automatic VNA trucks and BT Autopilot automated guided vehicles. It is focusing on providing support for three different automated products: The BT Radio shuttle high density storage system that combines specialised racking and fifth generation shuttles, the latest VNA trucks with Zoning and Positioning (ZAP) technology which uses RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) to accurately position trucks in an aisle, plus the BT Autopilot automated guided vehicle system that can help to increase efficiency.


CASE STUDY: Boosting performance 

Riha Wesergold is one of the leading beverage producers in Germany producing 1,000 different juice and mineral water products. It has six production locations throughout Europe. At its largest site at Rinteln it has concentrated four warehouses in one new central distribution warehouse which gives it a reduction of inventory, higher storage capacity, increased loading volume. SSI Schaefer was general contractor for the project. Centrepiece of the system is a high bay warehouse that is connected directly to the production lines through a transport bridge with an electro Monorail. The high bay has 38,700 pallet positions and 14 storage and retrieval machines. Handling capacity per storage and retrieval machine is 45 double or 70 single cycles.


In Brief

Lear picks LB Foster for seat system: Leicester based LB Foster Materials Handling has completed two contracts at the Lear Corporation seating facility located in Coventry. One contract was for a production line carousel conveyor and the second, for a dispatch conveyor system to store completed car seats in sequence on a cassette. Lear’s Coventry site was opened in 2013 to support Jaguar Land Rover’s F-type launch. The rectangular carousel is an indexing conveyor using accumulating chain and powered rollers. It has been constructed so that the operatives working on the carousel can produce 40 car sets of seats per hour. Once the seats are finished they are placed on a delivery pallet. The pallets are then loaded onto the new dispatch conveyor system. This consists of a series of three, two tier conveyors which house up to 36 car sets in sequence on a cassette. Automated tyre handling from Beumer: Beumer has launched its first automated material handling system specifically designed for the tyre production industry. The automated system includes the integration of release agent spray systems, as well as the buffering and curing processes. The system offers advanced features such as fully automated loading and unloading; end-to-end tracking of tires using RFID technology; and the ability to handle a wide variety of tyre sizes within a single system. Robots for logistics: West Midlands-based Armstrong UEN has developed a gantry-style palletising robot, and an industrial robotic arm, both of which have applications in the handling and distribution industry. 
Armstrong UEN’s cartesian, four-axis industrial robots have a 60kg lifting capacity, with unlimited travel distances, 3m/s travel speeds. The robots fit into the width of a truck trailer, and can be integrated to work alongside existing machinery.

Originally printed in Logistics Manager 05/2014

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