Home » Cold Supply Chain & Logistics: Labor, Cost Savers
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.
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 www.esigroupusa.com.
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