Some people dream about driving to work in a Porsche 911 sports car. John Schachermeyer dreamed about a different kind of transportation—a state-of-the-art automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) that would whir into action at the stroke of his keyboard, locate a specific item from the bowels of the enormous structure and swiftly roll it into the shipping area on a cart.
That may not sound like an impossible dream. AS/RS systems are in widespread use across the country today, moving auto parts, textiles and food products in and out of storage at lightening speed. But the items Schachermeyer envisioned barreling through the structure were not bolts of fabric or cases of windshield wipers but rather sofas, bureaus and kitchen tables.
Though the idea of storing furniture in a high-rise structure may have seemed far-fetched, Schachermeyer, who is distribution center manager for Art Van Furniture, a Warren, Mich.-based regional chain, clung to his conviction that installing an AS/RS would solve a lot of pressing problems. Not only would it improve his operation's speed and accuracy, but it would also help the company resolve some serious space issues. When Schachermeyer first dreamed his dream in 1994, skyrocketing sales were creating a space crunch in the warehouse. And the company's expansion options were limited: A traditional warehouse expansion would have consumed nearly all of the remaining space on its 65-acre site.
A trip to Germany changed the dream into reality. Ten years ago, Schachermeyer and a few other managers flew to Europe to tour several German facilities with AS/RS systems in place. "We flew all around Germany and looked at three or four different AS/RS systems," recalls Schachermeyer. "We were fairly impressed with what we saw."
Encouraged by what they had seen, the Art Van Furniture team returned to Michigan and set the plan in motion. But they quickly encountered a snag: Before they could install a state-of-the-art material handling system, they had to overhaul the company's aging computer and software systems. Once the upgrade was completed, however, it was clear sailing for Art Van Furniture, which soon became the first furniture store chain in North America to use an AS/RS solution.
Up and out
The allure of high-speed storage and retrieval for Art Van is obvious. The company's business model requires very fast turnaround for picking and shipping products to customers —which helps differentiate it from traditional furniture retailers. Because its retail outlets carry no inventory, all of the order fulfillment activity takes place at the 800,000-square-foot DC. And that's fast-paced activity: Once an order is taken, it's typically delivered to the customer the next day. The challenge for the AS/RS, therefore, was to move heavy and bulky furniture items like sofas, chairs and kitchen and bedroom furniture in and out of storage quickly, accurately and without damage.
The AS/RS used in Art Van Furniture's DC, which was designed by Siemens Dematic, is a double-ended solution, with one system for receiving and another for shipping. The AS/RS, which takes up 53,685 square feet of space, measures 105 feet high and 395 feet long, with four access aisles between the rack-supported structures. (Art Van is applying for a variance from the city to push the height to 150 feet for future expansions.) The system provides storage for up to 10,008 4- by 8-foot pallets. Pallet loads can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds.
Automation technology in the facility includes the unit load AS/RS system and PC-based off-board controls. For placing incoming merchandise and picking orders for store deliveries, the system travels at a horizontal speed of 780 feet per minute and a vertical speed of 295 feet per minute. Software controls from Siemens Dematic run the storage machines, monitor system status, maintain inventory and interface with the Art Van host computer.
On a typical day, the first shift is devoted to receiving furniture at the rear of the distribution center. Employees unload incoming delivery trucks using hand carts, and products are immediately bar coded and labeled.Workers roll the hand carts 60 feet to the AS/RS, place inventory onto pallets, and scan the products into Art Van's automated inventory system. The AS/RS then moves the products into storage. Items are stored based on height criteria, and a scanner determines whether a given product should go to a 44-inch cube area or the 76-inch high cube area. About three-quarters of the pallets are directed to the 44-inch cubes for storage.
During the second and third shifts, orders are received from stores, which transmit sales data on a daily basis. A pick list is generated from that information and sent to the warehouse. The list is divided by products that are stored in the automated high-rise area and those that must be picked in the conventional warehouse adjacent to the AS/RS that still relies on traditional material handling equipment. ("The conventional side of our warehouse doesn't even have a locator system," says Schachermeyer. "We go from no technology to about as high tech as you can get.") The AS/RS automatically batch picks products for each store, starting with the stores that are located the farthest away. Each pallet is labeled by store destination, unloaded onto a tugger cart, and placed onto trucks for delivery the next morning.
Untouched by human hands
Schachermeyer, who has been with Art Van Furniture for 35 years, says the conversion to AS/RS has been the most dramatic change he's seen during his tenure.What's made the difference, he says, is the system's speed and efficiency. At 100 picks per hour, the DC's throughput stays well ahead of the stores' delivery requirements.
"One of the biggest advantages is how quickly items are put away, and, on the picking end, how quickly items present themselves on the picking line," echoes Mike Rupert, an architect for Art Van who helped to design the system."It all comes together so seamlessly."
The system has also made life easier for managers at the chain's 29 stores, which are located throughout Michigan. Better inventory information has given store managers a much more accurate picture of what products are in stock and exactly where they are in the warehouse.
Other clear advantages lie in labor savings and damage control. Only four people per shift are needed to operate the automated system. By comparison, conventional systems that move similar amounts of product are typically staffed by between 20 and 30 employees. Before the AS/RS was installed, products were often damaged by pickers driving large picker trucks. The automated system has solved that problem, at least in the part of the warehouse where it's installed. "We've got almost a million square feet, so the AS/RS operates in a small area overall, but damage in there has been non-existent because no people touch the product," says Schachermeyer.
There's one more upside to report. Schachermeyer's initial labor estimates called for a full-time mechanic and a full-time information systems person to keep the system running. To his surprise, the mechanic has found he needs only eight to 10 hours a week to tend to the system's maintenance, although the system is also taken off line for a day or so three times a year for preventative maintenance. "We had trained a lift truck mechanic to do all the maintenance work," says Schachermeyer. "We were expecting at least one full-time person in there, so that was a nice surprise."
Toronto-based Apotex Inc. may be Canada's largest pharmaceutical manufacturer, but the company itself found itself in need of a miracle cure a couple of years ago. The manufacturer of generic drugs was suffering from a severe space crunch in its distribution center in Etobicoke, Ontario, a symptom of its skyrocketing growth. And waiting around for the symptoms to abate wasn't an option: In the generic drug business, success hinges on being first to market with a product.
What the company really needed was about 400,000 more square feet of warehouse space, which would supplement its existing 300,000-square-foot facility. But building an addition at the site wasn't an option, given that the current facility is surrounded by highways on all four sides. So Apotex decided to take the high road, altering its expansion plans from horizontal to vertical—a move that also gave the company more floor space for production and research as well as for storing raw materials.
The high-bay, very-narrow-aisle design the company settled on called for 65-foot ceilings as opposed to the traditional 30-foot ceilings. Apotex worked with material handling systems designer FKI Logistex to install two Cleco cranes that pick and put pallets to and from staging conveyors. The cranes are equipped with twin load units that can hold two pallets at once, enabling more efficient picking and putting. Moving about 800 pallets a day, the warehouse turns about 5 percent of its inventory daily. The facility continues to operate smoothly even with a 50- to 100-percent increase in production.
"This has certainly made us more efficient in that we can pick more pallets faster," says warehouse manager Steve Darnbrough. "Although the output of the manufacturing facility has increased between 50 and 100 percent from when we were in the old warehouse, we're still managing to fill production's needs with only slightly more operators than we used to have."