Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are among the most flexible of material handling technologies. They're able to store everything from large, heavy pallet loads to small, lightweight parts. The chief selling point of these systems is their ability to track inventory and deliver it when needed to fulfill orders.
The two main types of automated storage and retrieval systems are those used for storing large items on pallets and those used to store smaller items in totes, also known as miniload systems. What follows are the stories of two companies with very different requirements that each found the answer to its storage needs in an AS/RS.
THE CREAM RISES TO THE TOP
The thing about ice cream is that it has to remain frozen or it quickly turns to ice goop. The right technology, such as a pallet AS/RS housed within a large freezer, can help it keep its cool.
Since its founding in 1907, Blue Bell Creameries has become one of the best-known ice cream brands in the South. Headquartered in Brenham, Texas (near Houston), the company produces ice cream at three main plants in Brenham as well as in Alabama and Oklahoma. The ice cream is sold in 20 southern and western states.
The company attributes its success and steady growth to its model of doing only direct-to-store delivery, without any middlemen or wholesalers involved. "It allows us to control the quality," says Paul Prazak, manager of plant operations at the Brenham production facility.
Direct delivery requires that the ice cream be readily accessible so that the product that hits the stores is as fresh as possible. Using automated storage helps Blue Bell achieve that goal. Last year, the Brenham production building installed a new pallet automated storage and retrieval system. It replaced a storage system originally installed in 1982 that required an operator to ride along on the cranes to help gather items. That system did not offer the capacity or speed that Blue Bell would need in order to keep up with growing production and inventory volumes.
The new AS/RS from Daifuku Webb stores the ice cream on pallets within racking. Frozen ice cream can be quite heavy, so using pallets to hold product has proved to be both effective and space-efficient. The facility uses mainly dedicated pallets to assure that products can be easily handled by the automated system. Workers then select products from these dedicated pallets to fulfill customer orders.
The new AS/RS sits in the same footprint as the old system. "We just did not have the real estate to add on to the building," explains Prazak. "The new automation fits very nicely in that 275- by 75-foot space."
Although the footprint remains the same, the new system holds much more product than its predecessor. That's because the roof was raised by 40 feet. The system contains 7,720 storage locations in five aisles, each with a fast-moving storage crane. Compared with the old system, the new system operates more quickly, efficiently, and reliably. And an operator no longer needs to ride along, which has allowed those workers to be assigned elsewhere in the facility. The entire system sits within a huge freezer space, keeping the ice cream at a chilly 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
The company produces about 40 different ice cream flavors at a time that are typically sold to the public in half-gallon containers. It also produces ice cream products in a variety of other packagings. In all, a total of about 250 stock-keeping units (SKUs) are held in the automated storage system. Most will be there less than a month before they're selected for orders. Some ingredients are also stored in the system.
In addition to the AS/RS, Daifuku Webb also supplied two shuttle car systems to transport pallets to and from the automated system and to nearby traditional racking, where slower-moving SKUs are held. One loop is found on each end of the five aisles. Six shuttle cars ferry products to the input side of the AS/RS on about 400 feet of track. Here, they drop off products to be picked up by the five AS/RS cranes for putaway. Four additional shuttle cars handle output duties on a loop consisting of over 300 feet of track. Both systems also feed the stationary rack areas, which, like the AS/RS, are housed within the large freezer warehouse.
The input end of the racks features an additional input/output station on a second level. This gives the operation the flexibility to process additional volumes during peak periods and accommodate products coming from the other two production plants. It also provides redundancy if one of the main input or output stations is down for maintenance.
The new AS/RS is able to handle up to 250 pallets in and out per hour, and it has provided the additional capacity that Blue Bell Creamery needs now and for the future. On top of that, it has reduced labor needs, which means fewer people have to work in the freezer's arctic conditions. "It gave us the room to grow," says Prazak. "It has also been very reliable and gives us the throughput we need while minimizing labor."
It's said that good things come in small packages, and Phoenix Contact would certainly agree. The German company is a worldwide manufacturer of industrial electronics and control products, most of which consist of small items. In order to house all of those tiny parts and components, its U.S. operations installed a miniload automated storage and retrieval system at its manufacturing and distribution facility in Middletown, Pa. The AS/RS, supplied by viastore systems, holds finished goods manufactured in Middletown, imported items for distribution in North and South America, and raw materials used in production. In all, about 95 percent of the company's stock-keeping units (SKUs) can be housed in the system.
The four-aisle AS/RS was originally installed as part of an expansion to the Middletown facility that took place in 2008. Since then, the system has been expanded and now boasts seven aisles (with room to expand to 12) and more than 70,000 tote storage locations. "Totes" is the key word here, as using totes is vital to reducing human touches. "The whole [supply chain] system is designed around our totes," says Lou Paioletti, director of supply chain services. "We repack virtually nothing."
While some parts are manufactured in Middletown, the vast majority of inventory comes from Germany. These parts are packed overseas into the same totes that will be used to house the products within the AS/RS. The totes are loaded into ocean and air shipping containers that are owned by Phoenix Contact. Middletown receives three or four containers every week by boat as well as a daily air shipment. Upon arrival, the totes are removed and inducted directly into the AS/RS.
Eliminating the need to repack items into other storage containers has greatly simplified the receiving process. "We can receive a sea container in less than a day using only [the equivalent of] three and a half people. Before the automation, it took seven people two and a half days to receive the same container," Paioletti reports.
As parts are needed for orders, the warehouse management system (also supplied by viastore) issues instructions for the appropriate totes to be delivered to 10 goods-to-person picking stations. A computer screen displays which of five sizes of cartons should be used to pack the order. It also indicates how many of each item to select. Some of the totes may contain as many as four different SKUs, separated by dividers. To confirm that the correct part has been selected, the worker is asked to scan the item's bar code. In all, approximately 7,500 picks are made daily.
The selected items are placed into a shipping carton, and a packing slip, bar-code label, and shipping label are printed right at the station. The worker completes the order by applying the labels and sealing the carton.
Once a tote has been emptied, the container is filled with products manufactured in Middletown for shipment back to Germany. They are loaded into the company-owned shipping containers for transport back to Europe as part of an efficient closed-loop system.
As for how the new system is working out, the reports are decidedly positive. "The receiving process from day one has been a dream come true," says Paioletti. "Before, we had a separate packing area; now that has been eliminated by combining the picking and packing at the goods-to-person stations. It is so much easier now."
The automated system has also cut picking errors in half, while providing a robust accuracy rate of 99.9 percent. On top of that, Phoenix Contact has seen productivity improve by 45 percent.
But those productivity gains haven't translated into job losses; workers have instead been reassigned to other functions, Paioletti explains. "Even with the labor savings, we have never had a layoff in the history of our company," he says. "If we did not have the automation, however, we would need a larger footprint and a lot more people."