November 29, 2012
material handling update | AS/RS

Maintaining service during rapid growth

Maintaining service during rapid growth

Medical supply company improves efficiency with automated system.

By Peter Bradley

Aesculap is not a name that's likely to be familiar to logistics professionals. But for surgeons around the world, it is one that is very well known.

The company, based in Tuttlingen, Germany, provides surgeons with a wide variety of surgical instruments and surgical power systems, with a focus on the fields of general, neuro, spinal, and orthopedic surgery. Its products include instruments for open and minimally invasive surgeries; implants for orthopedics, neurosurgery, and spinal surgery; surgical sutures; sterile containers; and products for the cardiology sector, the company says.

Considering just how critical those products can be, ensuring that surgeons have the right product at the right time in the right condition is a business imperative for Aesculap.

A division of the privately held German firm B. Braun Melsungen AG, the company has grown rapidly in recent years, and that growth was putting stress on operations at its logistics center in Tuttlingen. By 2006, the facility was approaching its operational limits, the company said in response to written questions from DC Velocity.

The lack of capacity and expectation of continued growth led management to decide to expand its logistics operation and to employ automation to ensure timely, accurate shipping of its surgical products.

That goal was complicated by the variation in orders. "The new solution [had] to be capable of handling 2,500 orders per day," says Bernd Hermle, logistics director of Aesculap. "The order sizes vary considerably. The smallest orders consist of only one item, whereas large orders may include new equipment for an entire hospital unit."

Given the urgency of some shipments, speed and accuracy were paramount in the solution Aesculap sought. Hermle says that highest-priority orders received as late as 4:45 p.m. must be shipped by 5:30 p.m. that day. Some move even faster: At times, orders needed most urgently are collected by emergency vehicles.

Further complicating the business, German law requires strict batch tracing for all medical products. And many of those products are fragile and require sterile packaging.

Today, the distribution center carries 21,400 stock-keeping units (SKUs). According to Aesculap, those include 200 that are classified as "super-fast movers," 20,500 standard products, and 700 bulky items.

Most of those products come directly from Aesculap's production facilities in the same complex. When the distribution center receives the goods, items move to one of three warehouse areas: a manual picking section for the fastest movers, a mini-load automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) for the standard products, and a pallet warehouse for the bulky goods.

Aesculap turned to TGW to develop and install the facility's new pick system, which includes an automated storage and retrieval system, conveyors, controls, and TGW's warehouse control software, which links to the company's SAP enterprise resource planning system. The new pick system was designed to perform 13,000 picks during a 10-hour shift.

The 200 most urgent items are picked from racks at three workstations under the direction of the facility's warehouse management system (WMS). Workers are directed to the rack location by mobile RF devices. The WMS also manages the size of the picking area covered by each worker, varying it depending on the number of operators logged in at any one time, thus minimizing travel time and optimizing the picking process, Hermle says.

The majority of Aesculap's goods—the "standard" products—are handled in the TGW mini-load system, which has a total capacity of 51,240 totes over nine aisles. Products are broken out into three groups based on inventory velocity, with A being the fastest movers, C the slowest. Six aisles hold active A and B items in two blocks of three aisles each with single-deep storage using a high-speed mini-load. The mini-load is equipped with TGW's Booster stacker cranes to ensure rapid handling, the supplier says. The 12,600 single-depth storage locations contain all A- and B-classified items and offer direct access to the stock for order picking.

The remaining three aisles contain the vast majority of tote positions—38,640—and include C items and replenishment A and B items in double-deep storage using TGW Mustang stacker cranes. Order selection takes place in all three sections.

All together, the A, B, and C items handled in the TGW mini-load system account for about 70 percent of all picks. Those goods are selected at any of eight workstations. Each workstation has two in-feed conveyor lines for totes coming from the AS/RS and one inclined conveyor for order totes to move out. Each station also has eight pick-to-light positions.

Source totes are delivered by the miniload to a pick face via the conveyor system. Order pickers receive instructions for the pick on a screen at the station. Those instructions include what tote section to pick from (a single storage tote can contain as many as eight sections), the article, the quantity, and an arrow to the left or right showing which order tote to pick the goods to. Each order tote location includes a put-to-light module indicating the correct tote.

Completed order totes move to a consolidation area. A single order could include goods in a number of totes from several picking areas. The order totes move to a single mini-load aisle with a TGW Booster stacker crane. Once the system determines an order is complete, the totes move from the buffer to operators on a spur off the conveyor for packing. Small orders, in contrast, move directly from picking to packing for shipment.

In addition, some 700 bulky items are stored in Aesculap's high-bay warehouse. The company uses narrow-aisle forklift trucks to batch pick those items to pallets for later division into specific orders.

Hermle says the system has proved beneficial for Aesculap, minimizing errors and improving overall performance as well as reducing costs and throughput time and making better use of space.

One more benefit: Hermle says the system is designed to allow expansion with minimal disruption to operations. As the company grows, the logistics operation is built to grow with it.

About the Author

Peter Bradley
Editor Emeritus
Peter Bradley is an award-winning career journalist with more than three decades of experience in both newspapers and national business magazines. His credentials include seven years as the transportation and supply chain editor at Purchasing Magazine and six years as the chief editor of Logistics Management.

More articles by Peter Bradley

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