In what must be considered one of the most generous gifts ever made, the government of Denmark in April 2012 handed over the keys to a multimillion dollar procurement and distribution center to UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.
The facility, strategically located near the Port of Copenhagen, is designed to support the work UNICEF carries out on behalf of children around the world. With a staff of 320, the UNICEF Supply Division undertakes all of UNICEF's international procurement and also oversees and guides procurement and logistics in the field. It handles around $2 billion of supplies each year. Its work includes shipping emergency relief supplies in response to typhoons, war, famine, earthquakes, and other natural and man-made disasters. For instance, after Typhoon Haiyan battered the Philippines, planes carrying items like tents for child-friendly spaces, water purification and sanitation kits, and medical supplies were on their way from Copenhagen within 48 hours.
In addition to disaster relief shipments, the facility procures and delivers materials—such as vaccines, medicines, nutritional supplements, and educational supplies—to support UNICEF's ongoing child survival and development initiatives around the world. The automated design gives it the flexibility to process both rush orders required by disaster response and a steady flow of goods shipped to support the agency's ongoing global mission.
While UNICEF is based at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, its Supply Division has been based in Copenhagen since 1962. It is one of eight U.N. agencies with headquarters or major operations in the Danish capital. Most of these offices are located on an urban campus known as U.N. City, where UNICEF Supply previously operated a manual distribution center. The new facility for the Supply Division was built on a site near Copenhagen's port with the goal of creating more efficient procurement and distribution operations.
UNICEF itself was not directly involved in the construction of its new building, as the people of Denmark wanted it to be part of their contribution to the agency's important work. UNICEF merely provided guidelines on what it needed to fulfill its worldwide mission. The Danish government then hired Schaefer Systems, an international designer, integrator, and manufacturer of warehouse systems, to design an automated warehouse system that would meet UNICEF's needs.
The result is a building that is now the world's largest and most technologically advanced facility for humanitarian work. The Schaefer Systems design incorporates automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), miniloads, goods-to-person picking stations, electric rail shuttle cars, conveyors, and a new warehouse management system. In its first year alone, the system allowed for the precise handling of $115 million worth of products, while boosting both throughput and performance.
RELIEF READY TO GO
Currently, a core staff of 34 handles about 800 stock-keeping units (SKUs). These range greatly in size and purpose, from pencils and erasers to tents and tarpaulins. More than half of the products handled at the facility are medicines.
One of the operation's chief tasks is to build kits for various UNICEF outreach programs. The kits bring together items that would commonly be used together, such as medical equipment or educational supplies. Kitting makes them easier to ship and to clear customs. The day I visited the site, staffers were assembling kits of basic pharmaceuticals for UNICEF's health centers in Zimbabwe. The kits are stored at the facility until needed either for ongoing programs, like those in Zimbabwe, or for disaster response initiatives.
"We tailor-make the kits and try to anticipate what the health needs will be, but it is not easy, as we never know when the next cholera outbreak will occur," says Kyungnan Park, chief of the Logistics Centre Supply Division. She hails from South Korea and is one of the many international workers here. In all, people from some 70 different countries work at the Supply Division, and about 20 nationalities are represented on the warehouse floor.
A typical medical kit might include medicines, medical instruments and utensils, bandages, and other first aid supplies. A family water kit may include such items as water purification tablets, buckets, and soap.
Another of UNICEF's kits addresses educational needs. Called School-in-a-Box, it contains paper, pencils, crayons, exercise books, and other supplies for a teacher and 40 students to cover three months. And since attending school constitutes only a portion of a child's day in a relief camp or developing area, the agency also provides recreation kits containing items such as basketballs, soccer balls, and sports nets. While the facility can reach any part of the globe, over 60 percent of the developmental initiatives that Copenhagen supports are programs in sub-Saharan Africa.
HOPE ON THE MOVE
Products distributed by the facility arrive from suppliers all over the world. Most of these come in containers that are unloaded from cargo ships at the nearby port. Pharmaceuticals, however, are often delivered by air and then trucked to the site.
The facility offers 9,000 square meters (96,875 square feet) of storage space. Most products are housed in the high-bay warehouse, which contains an eight-aisle automated storage and retrieval system. Eight storage and retrieval machines serve the aisles, moving pallets in and out of 37,000 double-deep positions located on 12 rack levels.
With its location in Scandinavia, Copenhagen tends to experience cold winters. To maintain temperatures for products in the various areas of the rack-supported building, the facility deploys 28 temperature monitors inside the structure and one outside the building. If the temperature should go too high, skylights will open to cool it down. If it gets too cold, an air circulation system blows warm air from the ceiling into the aisles. The design assures the floor remains frost-free no matter how low the temperature drops outside. The movement of the cranes also helps to circulate air throughout the racking.
The storage cranes are tasked with retrieving single-item pallets and conveying them to output stations, where electric shuttles that ride on rails take over the transport. The shuttles run throughout the building on a track totaling 450 meters (1,476 feet) in length. They are the backbone of the building's transport system, which relies on automated conveying to handle much of the work normally done by lift trucks. Lift trucks are reserved for tasks such as moving large, bulky items like tents to shipping as well as for inserting and retrieving pallets from the automated systems.
The facility's two miniload systems feed smaller boxed items to picking stations. Each unit contains a miniload crane that travels down an aisle lined with storage positions. Between the two systems, there are 3,000 tray positions. Each miniload unit has 13 workstations where picking is performed. The cranes deliver trays to the workstations, where displays guide workers in picking items directly into larger order boxes.
After passing through automatic sealing and labeling machines, completed order boxes are delivered by conveyor to palletizing robots. The robots then stack them onto pallets in a sequence determined by the warehouse management system. Two conveyor lines send finished pallets to the shuttle system, where they join with full pallets pulled from the AS/RS for the journey to shipping.
The creation of kits with bulkier items is performed at two workstations. The shuttles transport products from the AS/RS to 20 source pallet locations. The cartons are opened, and their contents are picked from these pallets into order cartons. Completed outgoing boxes are conveyed to the palletizing robots, then head to shipping. Kits that are prebuilt for later shipment are sent to the AS/RS for storage until needed.
Temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals and relief goods needed immediately ship by air, while most of the goods that support ongoing programs are loaded into containers for ocean transport from the nearby Port of Copenhagen.
ORGANIZED FOR EFFICIENCY
Since it began shipping from the new facility in April 2012, UNICEF Supply has seen throughput levels rise to an average of 120 percent of what it was able to achieve at the previous warehouse, and there's plenty of room to grow. Currently, the facility operates only one shift, Monday through Friday, although additional shifts are added when the need arises.
But beyond the gains in throughput, the ability to respond quickly and accurately when help is needed most is critical to UNICEF's success.
"The automation has given us better organization in our work. Now, we can see our orders, what is missing, what can be packed, and what can't be packed yet," says Kyungnan. She adds that all of the work for creating a kit can be performed simultaneously, which is a huge advantage over the previous operation, where temporary packing lines had to be employed until all of the needed items could be gathered. "Now, it is organized better and we are more efficient," she says. "We can do our work in a systematic and logical way."