August 7, 2017
material handling | Picking Systems

Roll out the barrels!

Roll out the barrels!

With its craft beer business booming, beverage supplier Atlas Distributing needed a better way to store and handle heavy kegs. Specialized gravity-flow racks provided the answer.

By David Maloney

Sometimes, business opportunities come along that are too good to pass up. That was the case for Atlas Distributing, an Auburn, Mass.-based beverage distributor, when it acquired the rights to distribute Yuengling beer in the central part of the state in 2013. Although landing the contract was a coup for the distributor—Yuengling hadn't been distributed in the Bay State since the early 1990s—it also created a space challenge for the company's DC.

For Atlas, a family-owned and -operated beverage distributor founded in 1933, the space problem had been brewing for some time. The company, which provides beer, wine, and non-alcoholic beverages to more than 1,700 customers, carries about 1,500 different beverages, with nearly three-quarters of those stock-keeping units (SKUs) consisting of beers. Owing to the boom in craft beers in recent years, its inventory of these specialty items had been steadily increasing, putting a strain on the company's storage capacity.

"When you take on any new brand, you have to figure out how to fit it into your warehouse," says Amanda Lamoureux, the company's warehouse and inventory supervisor.

The Yuengling contract essentially brought the problem to a head. To accommodate the popular lager, Atlas would either have to add another 5,000 square feet of costly storage space or make better use of the space it already had in its Auburn, Mass., DC.

STAYING ON TRACK

Given the costs involved, Atlas quickly rejected the idea of expanding the warehouse's footprint or renting outside space. Instead, it decided to focus on finding ways to optimize its use of the existing facility, where goods are stored in racks and on floor stacks. (Most products were previously stored on pallets, but the width of the pallets often exceeded the width of the products they held, which resulted in wasted space.)

For help, the company turned to 1Stop Material Handling of North Easton, Mass., a dealer that had installed many of its existing handling and storage systems. In particular, Atlas was interested in finding ways to maximize storage within the 18,000-square-foot cooler, where all of the draft beers are stored in kegs of 1/2-, 1/4-, and 1/6-barrel sizes.

The solution 1Stop came up with called for the installation of 800 feet of Span-Track flow rack tracks from Unex to handle the kegs. The gravity-flow racks include 190 flow rack locations to accommodate the 1/6-barrel size kegs (5.23 gallons) and 30 racks for the half-barrel size kegs (15.5 gallons).

The Span-Track concept was already familiar to Atlas. Several years back, 1Stop had installed the system in the flow racks used in the ambient storage area of the facility, where Atlas stores cases of beer. That system enabled the distributor to house 10 times more cases in the same footprint than was possible with the previous setup. Based on its experience using the Span-Track system for case flow, the company was confident a similar solution would work for keg storage in the cooler.

The new installation at Atlas includes flow racks consisting of four- and eight-foot spans. The design allows restocking from the backs of the Span-Track flow racks, which allows product to be rotated on a first-in/first-out basis. That is especially important for craft beers, some of which have a short shelf life and which do not rotate as fast as more popular brews.

Among other advantages, the Span-Track solution allows flow lanes to adjust to the width of the products being housed within the racking. In Atlas's cooler application, the widths were adjusted to the size of the kegs, but they can easily be reconfigured as storage needs change.

"It also helps us organize our products better," says Lamoureux. "With the amount of craft and specialty items that breweries are creating, it is a necessity to be organized."

Rollers on the racks provide positive contact with the kegs, allowing them to gently flow to the front of the racks, where they can be easily retrieved. Workers no longer have to reach deep into the racks to grab heavy kegs from the back of pallets. Considering that the half-barrel kegs weigh a hefty 165 pounds and the 1/6-barrel kegs weigh in at 60 pounds, this make the flow racks a safer and more ergonomic solution than the previous pallet-based storage system.

The Span-Track system is also well suited for use in the cooler, as it is designed to operate in temperatures as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit. As a further advantage, the drop-in design of the roller units make them easy to install.

PERFECT FOR PICKING

The draft beer lines housed in the cooler make up about 10 percent of the total volume of beers in the facility. Right now, workers pick orders for these products using paper lists, but Atlas will soon transition to voice-directed picking for kegs in the cooler. When the time comes, the operation will implement the Vocollect voice solution from Honeywell, which is already deployed in the ambient area.

The voice solution works in conjunction with Vermont Information Processing's (VIP) warehouse management system (WMS), which is geared specifically to beverage distribution. (VIP is a WMS partner with Honeywell, so the integration of voice picking was a simple matter.)

Faster-moving kegs are selected from floor storage locations, while the slower-moving kegs and most specialty products are picked from the flow racks. (Although the majority of specialty brew products are stored in the flow racks, some are housed in four-foot-deep pushback racks.)

ORGANIZED AND EFFICIENT

As for how the new rack system is working out, the Atlas managers give it high marks. "The Span-Track gave us four to five times more locations for picking. It opens up so much more space," says Lamoureux. "We would have run out of space very quickly in the cooler without them."

Products are also more organized in the racks, and floor clutter has been eliminated. Since the kegs roll forward, they are easier for workers to grab and safer to lift than was the case with the previous system. Safety stops assure that the kegs do not tumble out of the racks as they slide forward.

The Span-Track sections allow the kegs to be stored more closely together, which cuts down on travel for the order pickers. The products are both visible and easy to locate in the racks, which has reduced picking time. The system has proved to be so efficient that only two workers are now needed to pick orders in the cooler, compared with the 20 workers who used to labor inside the 38-degree section. These lucky employees have now been freed for duties in more comfortable climes.

About the Author

David Maloney
Chief Editor
David Maloney has been a journalist for more than 30 years and has been with DC VELOCITY since April of 2004. Prior to joining DCV, David was senior editor for Modern Materials Handling, where he reported extensively on distribution and supply chain operations. David also has extensive experience as a broadcast journalist. Before writing for supply chain publications, he was a journalist, television producer and director in Pittsburgh. David combines a background of reporting on logistics with his video production experience to bring new opportunities to DC VELOCITY readers, including Web-based videos highlighting top distribution and logistics facilities, Webcasts and other cross-media projects. He also is the host and producer/director of Move It!, DC VELOCITY's online program that explains "how the stuff we use everyday gets to us." David continues to live and work in the Pittsburgh area.

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