Brian Davis discovers how manufacturers who are investing in automation for materials handling in the warehouse and on the factory floor are increasing their cost competitiveness
Best practice in materials handling runs all the way from selecting the right warehouse management system, to operating the latest laser-guided forklifts, stacker cranes, voice pick and lift systems, to a new high bay warehouse.
Dairy Crest’s National Distribution Centre (NDC) in Nuneaton is a case in point; and is milking the benefits of logistics automation in a £38 million investment with a warehouse footprint of 27,000 square metres. Using a system designed and implemented by Siemens with Dematic automation, Dairy Crest regularly dispatches product within 10 hours of order receipt, mostly in mixed product pallets. Previously, Dairy Crest wrestled with the dispatch of numerous full pallets direct from manufacturing locations nationwide.
Today they use two fully automated high bay warehouses at the NDC – one handling cheese maturation with storage capacity for over 35,000 pallets, and a second which can handle 10,000 pallets of finished products, including brands such as Clover and Frijj.
Warehouse operations manager Brandon Moss is enthused by the totally bespoke system. “The warehouse management system controls the orders, planning, automated crane movements, replenishment, replans and put-away.” The system also manages shelf-life rotation – a vital factor in the food sector since the minimum shelf-life varies from customer to customer.
The two-tier picking hall features fully automated replenishment of static and dynamic picking slots, and can handle 1,200 picking lines through 980 locations. “The whole operation, including receiving and dispatch, is served by a rapid pallet transport monorail system,” says Moss. Five storage and retrieval cranes replenish the picking aisles automatically. Picking staff travel on ride-on pallet trucks utilising radio data terminals (RDTs) to plan their picking route.
Twenty four hour control is paramount. The control room manages automation and goods flow throughout the distribution centre, operated by 12 flow controllers supported by eight engineers working across a 24/4 shift pattern. As the main service provider, Dematic ensures that all cranes and automation function well on an annual rolling contract. Three companies were originally invited to tender for the ‘fairly tight’ design brief. “Siemens scored because of their experience in the FMCG market and ability to provide a complete solution based on proven hardware and software,” says Moss.
The system is fully customised and optimised for lean. “Everything is barcoded as it comes in and we let the computer manage it after that,” says Moss. Incoming goods are transferred from trailers to one of four automated receiving conveyor positions via ride-on powered pallet trucks. Following a profile check, the pallet identity is verified against information held on the WMS, which is an integral part of the Siemens solution. About 1.2 million cases are handled weekly.
There are up to 1,000 terminals on site, where personnel can gain ready access to production and storage information. Dairy Crest has an intranet and Nuneaton serves 10 Dairy Crest manufacturing sites and 500 national and international delivery points. The KPIs speak for themselves. “Our pick accuracy is 99.98 per cent and OTIF 99.9 per cent,” remarks Moss.
However, progress never stops, and the group invests up to £300,000 a year in maintaining and updating automation. All cranes are now laser guided, and the warehouse operators use touch screen RDTs with Bluetooth for picking, assembling order and loading trucks.
But you don’t need to be a giant like Dairy Crest to benefit from automation. Sheet metal subcontractor Carlton Laser produces enclosures, power generation equipment, panels for hospital beds and ‘change’ machines. “We faced a serious threat from China. They could easily undercut us on price but we reckoned we could beat them on lead times as we are a damn sight closer to customers,” maintains managing director Dennis Kent.
For many years the company had fed its sheet metal cutting machines by hand, a sheet at a time. No mean feat but very labour intensive. Five years ago Carlton invested in a laser/punching cell equipped from Swiss company Bystronic with a tower system that holds 80 tonnes of raw material and finished goods. “Now we can load up the cell and run it overnight as a totally automated system, boosting productivity by 65 per cent.” Twelve months ago the firm also installed a robotic press brake cell to handle folding operations.
Automation has had several benefits. The 68-strong firm has managed to grow turnover from £3 million to £4.6 million without further recruitment.
Furthermore: “We are winning back work from China because of what we’ve invested. Though we still can’t match them on price directly, we are much nearer, and score on reduced lead times.” Carlton has ordered a further Bystronic system for flat blank laser cutting for delivery this summer.
Increasingly complex orders demand high delivery accuracy to keep customers satisfied. What’s more, automated systems reduce the incidence of damage suffered to packaging and goods in old-style warehouse operations. There is also the matter of health and safety to consider, as well maintained and automated warehouses are safer places in which to work.
Quinn Glass, a leading manufacturer of glass containers for the drinks industry, proves the point. Quinn Glass boasts the largest automated high bay pallet warehouse ever built in the UK, supplying Diageo, Britvic and others. The plant was designed and equipped by Stocklin, can produce up to 1.5 billion units a year and has capacity for more than 250,000 pallet locations. The £300 million plant features 24 narrow-aisle Stocklin MASTer stacker cranes and a huge pallet transportation system, and SSI Schaeffer-supplied racking. The complete system covers a warehouse the size of seven football fields, and is controlled by CSA Central Systems and Automation warehouse management system.
“Our system is now 100 per cent accurate in terms of stock rotation,” maintains Brian Harrison, warehouse and transport manager.
“The storage capacity is a massive plus for us as we have 13 different production lines and also store glass from our filling hall.” What’s more, the warehouse is bonded so some products may be kept for customers for two or three months, while others are turned around within a week, allowing for quality procedures to be followed. Flexibility is key, as most of Quinn’s customers run sophisticated filling lines. “Our express KPI is 100 per cent OTIF delivery from site.”
Rethinking warehouse layout can also have significant impact. The Quinn Group is heavily committed to automation, and its radiator site in Newport, Gwent recently doubled its storage capacity to over 10,000 lines in just under a month, following installation of SSI Schaeffer’s flexible materials handling solution. Quinn had previously invested in R4000 multi-tier modular shelving and PR600 pallet racking from SSI Schaeffer in 2006. But a new stores area was required, as the volume of spare parts has since doubled. “With business booming and production figures increasing on a weekly basis, we knew that an extended stores area was vital,” comments Quinn Radiators’ purchasing manager Andrew Witt.
Speedy revamp and redesign of warehousing can be key to commercial success. But there are other considerations in materials handling today, like increased environmental concerns. Beverage can manufacturer Rexam in Milton Keynes has replaced traditional wooden pallets with plastic as part of an ongoing effort to improve environmental performance. “Sustainability is a priority,” says Bill Neilson, director of quality and customer technical services. “Widespread introduction of plastic pallets offers hygiene and environmental benefits as well as lasting longer than wooden ones.”
Rexam produces over 1.6 billion cans a year for Coca Cola and many other drinks firms. Their palletisers can take 6,000 to 11,000 cans per pallet, operating on a bay-to-bay system with total tracking from final can inspection to customer delivery, in concert with a bespoke TPS warehouse management system. “Traceability is paramount as every part of the movement of the pallet is scanned, so we know exactly where a can is in terms of the warehouse, the pallet journey and the customer,” says Neilson.
Interestingly, none of the companies expressed interest in RFID for tracking pallets. Brandon Moss of Dairy Crest maintained: “RFID was not suitable for handling liquid products.” Neilson of Rexam also said they had no plans to adopt RFID as pallet traceability was already high. “We also have motion detectors around the plant to determine the forklift driver’s style, how long a truck has been running for service intervals, and whether there has been an accident.”
Robots can also play an important role in advanced materials handling. Rexam’s Wakefield plant is equipped with a robotic handling system to lift bales into pallet locations, replacing one person per shift. There again, Rexam’s Milton Keynes plant offers the ultimate in JIT as a ‘hole in the wall’ operation to Coca Cola next door. Like major components suppliers in the auto industry, nothing beats being able to supply your customer ‘through the wall’.
Improving materials handling is an area that can still deliver considerable cost benefit.