Experts say it’s time to take a fresh look at automated material handling.


In the past, companies experiencing growth often turned towards building a new facility – or expanding their existing facility – to help accommodate additional inventory.

However, during the past three to four years, financial and economic disruptions have forced companies to be much more cautious with capital expenditures and look at situations more subjectively. More companies are asking, “How can I grow and expand my business utilizing my current facility?” and “How can I increase production with less cost?”

In turn, more companies are turning to automation as a practical solution.

New options, more options
During the last 30 years, automated warehousing has evolved from massive vendor-driven designs in very specialized, fully-automated structures to more of a commodity approach involving conventional structures. No longer do companies have to build a highly specialized facility for a single vendor’s proprietary automated system. Instead, a number of warehouse operators are turning to mini mechanized systems with automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) replenishment.

These systems may be used as stand-alone units or implemented with existing pick-to-pallet jacks, pick-to-belt or pick-to-tote solutions. These hybrid systems also can work for almost any type of company that handles food – including grocery retailers, foodservice distributors, public refrigerated warehouses or food processors.

Recent trends also have shown companies looking for help with their “slow movers.”  Since slow movers proliferate and inundate the typical warehouse, most facilities want access to all kinds of specialty products (only in small amounts) – but still want them delivered with their regular deliveries at little or no extra cost. 

ESI Constructors recently helped a southwestern convenience store company automate a distribution center. In this instance, ESI designed a multi-level system with an AS/RS crane for pick-to-belt and pick-to-pallet activities within the same module.

This approach allows the operator to combine fast movers and slow movers in the same system – further amortizing the cost of the automated system by doing replenishment with the automated crane for fast movers. It also allows the owner to maximize overhead clearance in its existing facility.

This system has reduced forklift labor by 90 percent and improved sortation and queuing for pick-to-belt items, which will result in a 30 percent increase in order selection and order consolidation productivity.

The system has been designed with the ability to migrate into fully automated selection of up to 80 percent of the total master case throughput of the facility. This process will be an add-on that capitalizes on the newly installed AS/RS conveyor and sortation infrastructure.

Labor savings, improved selection accuracy, ease of integration and related operating requirements make these systems a great choice in helping companies become more competitive in the marketplace.

What’s changed?
If you haven’t looked closely at the automated material handling market, it’s time to do so because of changes in …

… complementary technologies: Today’s scanning, labeling, radio frequency and conveying equipment is both improved and more flexible than what was available five to 10 years ago.

… size, energy demand: Newer, smaller systems take less space and use less energy. New systems also use fewer resources. For example, an AS/RS warehouse needs no lighting in the crane aisle. It only needs lighting in the selection areas and those may be turned off based upon motion in the aisle.”  

… software: Although it’s demanding, new automated systems do not require as much processing capacity as their older counterparts. New systems also are friendlier for warehouse employees. A younger generation of workers does not remember working without computers, so it takes less time for them to understand and embrace warehouse automation. 
… return on investment: Labor savings, improved selection accuracy, reduced building size and related operating requirements all help automated systems bring a faster return on investment.

In the end, not very building is designed for automation or even needs automation.

Facility owners need an expert – not affiliated with an automation vendor – to examine each case. This way, building owner-operators get an unbiased opinion of the value of automation to their operation. Unbiased experts will help facility owners select systems that represent a correct “fit.”

No matter what, if you haven’t looked closely into the automated material handling market in awhile, it’s time to do so.

Steve King is a regional vice president in Vancouver, Wash., for ESI Constructors Inc. King has more than 30 years experience in food industry project management, design and building. Learn more about ESI, Hartland, Wis., at

World news & notes

Swisslog, Buchs/Aarau, Switzerland, expects this summer to complete and start up a high-bay public refrigerated warehouse in Zellik, Belgium (near Brussels), for Norbert Dentressangle, a French third-party logistics company. Swisslog says the fully automated location handles products at temperatures as low as -25

Bridgford upgrades AS/RS

You can count Bridgford Foods Corp., Anaheim, Calif., among AS/RS believers. In fact, this frozen bread, roll and sandwiches processor contracted with its original system provider, Westfalia Technologies Inc., to upgrade an automated storage and retrieval system in Dallas.

Westfalia, York, Pa., installed Bridgford’s original system in 1994. Officials said its 2011 renovation involved new motors with SEW drive technology, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), Allen Bradley human machine interface (HMI) upgrades, wireless communications between conveyors and warehouse management software and a complete replacement of the system’s electrical control cabinet. 

Westfalia said it completed system upgrades within a scheduled 14 days and that Bridgford’s Dallas plant, a frozen dough bakery, was able to partially ship items after only eight days.

Preferred opens third fully automated site

Refrigerated warehouse operator Preferred Freezer Services (PFS), Chatham, N.J., opened a fully automated, 10 million-cubic-foot warehouse in Elizabeth, N.J. PFS said it held a mid-November open house, “where guests witnessed firsthand how curve-going, rail-guided robotic stacker cranes can precisely handle pallet loads of goods in complete darkness, as two pallets per minute move from the loading dock to the freezer at each high speed door.” PFS’ Elizabeth, N.J., site is the company’s third fully automated operation in the United States and fifth worldwide, officials say. PFS has 27 locations in the United States, Vietnam and China.  

World news & notes

AS/RS technologies supplier Savoye, Dijon France, says it wants to introduce a pallet shuttle to U.S. food processors and cold storage warehouse operators. The company opened a U.S. sales office, Savoye Inc., in suburban Chicago (Hoffman Estates, Ill.). Officials say the pallet shuttle is a popular AS/RS solution and has proven itself in a 2010 installation in Ardooie, Belgium, for Ardo nv, one of Europe’s largest frozen vegetable and fruit processors.