As part of your maintenance routine, do you evaluate your material handling systems to make sure they're meeting expectations? If not, maybe you should. Doing this type of periodic analysis can be well worth the effort. In addition to exposing existing problems, this sort of exercise may point you to new ways to use the equipment.
Consider the case of cookware distributor Meyer Corp., U.S. In 2009, the company, whose products include such well-known brands as Anolon, Circulon, and Farberware, was uncomfortably aware that its existing palletizer and supporting conveyor system wasn't performing to standard.
The palletizer had been installed five years previously to speed up the inbound container unloading process. The idea was that as trucks arrived at dock doors, merchandise would be unloaded and whisked to the palletizer by a spaghetti-like network of conveyors. The palletizer would then automatically stack the items on pallets, and the pallets would be sent to storage.
Had the equipment worked correctly, it should have increased throughput twofold over offloading containers manually. But Meyer was never really able to get the conveyors and the palletizer to play well together. "It never really reached its potential," says Mark Warcholski, Meyer's director of warehouse operations. It got to the point where the system was down more than it was up, he says.
Because the system was so unreliable, it was never embraced by the team, Warcholski adds. Eventually, DC employees became so disillusioned with the equipment that many simply bypassed the palletizer and supporting conveyors and sent trucks to regular dock doors for manual unloading, according to Dave Rebata of Flostor, an integrator that stepped in to help Meyer address the issue.
Too many integrators
As for the source of the problem, Warcholski does not blame the equipment itself. There was nothing wrong with the palletizer's hardware, he says. Instead, he believes that Meyer used too many integrators to incorporate the palletizer into its overall material handling system. This lack of cohesiveness caused continual failures for the palletizer and kept it from working smoothly with the company's conveyor systems.
It was obvious to Warcholski and his team that something had to be done. The company couldn't afford to carry what was essentially a non-performing asset on its books. Replacement wasn't an option either—particularly as Meyer was already in the middle of an AS/RS installation project at its main DC in Fairfield, Calif., where it was consolidating distribution operations. The team would have to find a way to make the existing asset work in harmony with the rest of the equipment—in other words, solve the integration problem.
Coincidentally, Warcholski's team was already working with an integrator, Flostor, on another project—one that involved the installation of a pick module at the Fairfield DC. It was during a budget meeting with Flostor that a member of Warcholski's team had a unique idea: Why not use the same conveyors and controls that were already being used to feed the palletizer on the inbound side to move outbound products from the pick module to the correct outbound trailer? In other words, connect the conveyors to the planned pick module, add a sortation system to the existing conveyors, and then extend the conveyors into trucks for outbound delivery. "The more we looked at it, the more we thought, 'Yeah, that's a really good idea,'" recalls Rebata.
First step: brain surgery
But first, the team needed to get the palletizer to do what it was designed to do. "We basically had to gut the current system and give it a new brain," explains Warcholski. "That doesn't mean we were disassembling any of the mechanical pieces. It was really looking into the software and partnering back up with the manufacturer, Columbia, and getting it working the way it needed to."
This time around, Meyer was determined not to repeat past mistakes. "When we [first set up the system], there were too many people involved," says Warcholski. "This time, we went with Flostor and told them, 'You're the single integrator.'"
After partnering with Columbia to work out the bugs in the system, Flostor began looking at the mechanics of incorporating the palletizer case conveyor into the outbound flow. Could the conveyor be easily switched from running in one direction for inbound receiving to running the opposite way for outbound deliveries? Was there a way to set up the system so that Meyer could quickly turn off the palletizer and turn on the sorter as part of its daily operations?
After studying the problem, the integrator decided the answer to both questions was yes. Working together with Meyer, Flostor successfully assembled a pick module that could interface with the palletizer and be used for outbound sortation. This was no small accomplishment, according to Rebata. "It's very unusual for somebody to come in and do this using an existing system," he says. "By the time that system is up and running the way it should be for one process, it's very difficult to make it turn on a dime and work for another process. A lot of work has to go behind it."
Two for one
But it was this decision to use the conveyor system in two different ways that really made the project a success, according to Warcholski. Not only was Meyer finally able to use the equipment for its intended purpose, but the company was also able to use it in a totally different capacity.
By all accounts, the project has resulted in significant operational benefits. "It increased our volume capacity twofold, allowed us to reduce labor, and increased our productivity," says Warcholski. Now, during non-peak season, the swing shift uses the palletizer on the inbound side, and the day shift uses it to process outbound cases. This has allowed the company to reduce its non-peak outbound shifts from two to one.
Better yet, the solution proved economical. By reusing an existing system, the company was able to avoid making a $2 million investment in new conveyors and controls. In addition, the implementation time was much shorter than if Meyer had started from scratch. Meyer began to see the payback immediately, according to Warcholski.
Meyer is not done with reviewing its palletizer and conveyor system (or for that matter, the other systems that were installed around it). Based on the success of the project, the company says that over the next three to five years, it will be continually looking at its systems to make sure they're performing at optimal levels—and being put to maximum use.