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Home>AUTOMATION>Handling & Logistics>Evolution In the Warehouse

Evolution In the Warehouse

18 March 2013

The rise of internet shopping, seasonal variations and the need for the highest standards of hygiene are all issues that have been addressed through the use of automation in the warehouse

Whether they choose to invest in it or not, many are aware of the myriad of benefits potentially gained from automating all or part of the production process. In contrast, further down the supply chain, in the warehouse, it seems that there has traditionally been a reluctance to undertake the kind of investment that automation requires. However, this looks set to change, driven partly by the rise in internet sales. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the average weekly online spend in September 2012 was over £507 million. This represents an increase of almost 10% over September 2011, with online sales accounting for almost 9% of all retail spending. With the retail business model undergoing such drastic changes, it stands to reason that the warehouses that serve it will also have to evolve.

Warehouse automation provider, KNAPP, has supplied a multichannel system to Boots UK’s brand-new distribution centre in Burton-upon-Trent. The pharmacy-led health and beauty retailer had experienced rapid growth in its online operations, driving a move from its outsourced, largely manual operation in Birmingham to in-house fulfilment in the new DC. Boots UK, which is a member of Alliance Boots, invested over £50 million in the facility, which included the 460,000 sq ft building – the area of six football pitches – its total refurbishment and the automated handling systems. The building encompasses the retailer's UK Christmas gift operations, its growing international retail distribution and the e-commerce fulfilment operation www.boots.com.

At the heart of the solution are 12 of KNAPP's OSR Shuttle systems, which provide automated storage combined with goods-to-person order picking at eight ergonomically designed Pick-it- Easy workstations. Ideal for slow- and medium-moving goods, the OSR Shuttle systems process the majority of the inventory at Burton. Fast-moving products, meanwhile, are picked in a flow rack area at one of eight workstations that utilise pick-to-light technology.

KNAPP also supplied its KiSoft WMS (warehouse management system) and KiSoft WCS (warehouse control software) to optimise all warehouse movements and processes. In addition, Boots UK contracted KNAPP to provide a team of resident engineers in order to maintain the handling solution.

The system has increased time efficiency by 65% compared to the previous manual operation, while also improving order traceability. The solution is already providing a significant reduction in variable costs and its modular design provides a platform for further growth.

Following year on year growth outdoor specialist Jack Wolfskin found its warehousing and logistics systems were bursting at the seams. Addressing the issue, the company turned to TGW to fit-out a new distribution centre featuring TGW’s innovative storage and order picking systems. The Jack Wolfskin distribution centre project involved a conversion of the entire logistics organisation, and now supplies all of Europe.

The logistics centre, located in Neu Wulmstorf, Germany (near Hamburg) completely relies on direct carton handling – pallets, trays, or other additional load carriers are not needed. Jack Wolfskin’s Logistics Manager Uta Mohr explains: "Very early in the planning process, it became clear to us that we wanted to work without trays or additional load carriers since that would not be a solution for us, but rather merely an aid for the AS/RS technology.”

The start of the season is the greatest challenge for logistics because all points of sale must receive the new product range at this time. Mohr says: "For this eason, we deliver the new goods to the shops first and then send out the catalogue.”

Each season, about 8000 different articles are available, including all sizes and colour variants. With an overlapping of both seasons, about 16,000 SKUs are permanently available in the main warehouse. "The business at the beginning of the season gives us plannability to the extent that we can add this volume to the plan up to four weeks in advance,” Jack Wolfskin’s CFO, Christian Brandt says.

The greater challenge, however, is delivery from stock, which makes up about 70% of all sales orders. "In this case, the shop spontaneously orders what it needs and we deliver these articles up to 30% on the same day and the rest usually on the next day. Only a few companies can do the same,” says Brandt. The bandwidth of order sizes varies from one-piece orders up to the initial stocking of a shop with more than 3000 different articles or the order of more than 1000 pieces of a jacket by a large customer.

All of these requirements could no longer effectively be met in the old, purely manual logistics solution with sequential two-stage order picking. Brandt says: "We performed a lot of calculations, made plans, and discovered that this concept was simply no longer scalable. It was clear to us that we had to find a radically different solution.”

The core of the new logistics centre is TGW’s automatic carton warehouse. The automatic carton warehouse stores the delivered cartons directly and without additional load carriers in the triple-depth storage structure using TGW’s Twister technology.

"For us, it was decisive that, using a triple-deep solution, TGW managed to create an optimum ratio between storage capacity and storage density with sufficient dynamics at an acceptable relation to the investment volume. No other company offered such a solution,” adds Brandt.

In the first phase, a 12-aisle warehouse with 210,000 storage locations for cartons was implemented. The system has also been designed to allow the warehouse to be expanded to a total of 19 aisles and almost 310,000 storage locations.

The entire order picking process is supplied with goods from the carton warehouse. The goods are conveyed to the order picking zones defined by the system and provided in shelving racks. Order picking itself remains manual, but the entire process is controlled by the new system. "We have made quantum leaps in development,” Mohr says. "We used to use sheets of paper on which the goods were checked off with a ball point pen. Now, everything is under control via RF data transmission.”

With automation, another positive benefit is that articles do not have to stay in a fixed place in the order-picking warehouse. The TGW system allows for items to be moved and stored in multiple locations to speed up order fulfilment. The distances have become considerably shorter and we can fulfil an unbelievable number of sales orders at the same time through the pick stations,” Brandt says.

The area of value-added services is a very important function for the business of Jack Wolfskin and its trading partners. Here, the articles are labelled, repacked, specially documented, and possibly ironed or otherwise prepared according to customer requirements. Coming directly from the order picking process, the system automatically routes items requiring such pre- retail preparation to 16 ergonomic- ally designed workstations in the value-added services area. The employees at these workstations scan the incoming cartons, and work instructions for that order immediately display. Finished cartons are confirmed in the system and transferred back onto the conveyor. Finally, all cartons reach the goods-out area, where they are covered with a lid, strapped, and labelled for shipping.

Although the retail sector is often at the forefront of warehouse automation, it is not the only sector to benefit from the technology's implementation. For example, what is believed to be the world’s first fully automated, sterile warehouse for surgical instruments has been placed into operation at a hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark. The system makes a genuine contribution to curbing the costs of healthcare by saving labour costs amounting to 10 man-years. Electric drives and clean design components from Festo ensure that everything runs reliably and smoothly.

The surgeons carry out at least 60 operations every day and the hospital’s IT specialists recognised that getting the surgical instruments ready for the operating room involved a great deal of time and money – not to mention the fact that sometimes the packages contained incorrect instruments. Therefore, considerable effort had to be invested in improving the system.

The hospital turned to Danish automation specialist Gibotech to install a new automated warehouse management system. In just 10 days during normal operation, Gibotech fitted a globally unique system in the cramped basement rooms of a new building at the hospital.

Although automated warehouse management systems are common place in industry, a system for cleaning and picking surgical instruments at a hospital was unheard of. "But the system functioned faultlessly from the very first day,” reports Lars Vinge, production manager at Gibotech.

The warehouse has 1900 storage locations and 1800 baskets, which are all equipped with RFID labels. The system is capable of handling up to 100 transactions a day and with the current level of 60 operations carried out each day, the system has capacity to process more. Each basket has a processing time of five to 10 minutes.

The new system eliminates the need for hospital personnel to manually handle heavy baskets of surgical instruments between the various steps of order picking, cleaning, sterilising, storage and withdrawal for scheduled operations. As a result, it saves labour costs amounting to 10 man- years and frees up resources which the hospital can better use for other investments.

Personnel manually load wire baskets with surgical instruments which are cleaned in sterile washing machines. The baskets with the instruments are then lined with hygienic crepe paper, which is not damaged during the sterilisation process in the autoclaves. During the next step, the personnel assemble the instruments into operation-specific packages, depending on requirements for operations scheduled for the next day. The wire baskets are consigned to the storage system where they can be easily located with the help of barcodes, RFID and data sheets. The handling systems make it easier to find the storage locations.

Festo’s EGC electric axes are at the heart of the handling system. They distribute the baskets to the rack system’s 1900 storage locations with great precision and reliability. Wherever the surgical instruments might come into close proximity to system components, clean design pneumatic components from the stainless steel ISO roundline CRDSNU range are used, which are certified in accordance with cleanroom class 8. Modular valve terminals CPX/MPA are installed in a decentralised fashion and connected to Rockwell controllers via Ethernet/IP.

The very pure and dry atmosphere within the system is a challenge for all of the drives. "But neither the pneumatic nor the electric drives from Festo had any problems in this respect,” stresses project manager Vinge. On the contrary, planned system availability was 97%. "At the moment we’re even reaching a peak value of 98.5%,” reports Vinge, who hopes to inspire other hospitals all over the world with this reference system.

Key Points

  • KNAPP’s OSR Shuttle systems combine automated storage with goods-to-man order picking at Boots UK’s distribution centre
  • A TGW system at Jack Wolfskin allows items to be moved and stored in multiple locations to speed up order fulfilment
  • Festo’s EGC electric axes at the heart of the world’s first fully automated, sterile warehouse for surgical instruments