As a 104-year-old manufacturer of heating, industrial, and refrigeration systems, The Viessmann Group is a pillar of the German economy. Now in its fourth generation of ownership by its founding family, the company in 2019 employed some 12,300 people in 12 production facilities and booked sales of $3.2 billion.
However, managing warehouses full of climate-management products like oil- and gas-fueled boilers and hot-water tanks requires significant forklift operations. So the company recently decided to install a forklift guidance system with the goals of optimizing internal material flows; increasing lift truck efficiency; saving time, cost, and energy; and improving on-site safety.
The company also wanted a way to track inventory throughout the building. Specifically, Viessmann was looking for a solution that would automatically log the locations of pallets in order to keep track of work-in-progress materials, all without requiring additional scanning steps or slowing the flow of pallets as they’re continually shuffled around the facility throughout the day.
For help with the project, Viessmann turned to SEP Logistik AG, a Bayern, Germany-based developer of warehouse management software. That firm recommended a product called the RELAG-System - SLS, a forklift guidance system with real-time location system (RTLS) functionality. The system’s forklift-tracking ability is enabled, in turn, by the automated navigation technology (ANT) vehicle localization platform from BlueBotics SA, a Saint-Sulpice, Switzerland-based developer of navigation technology for industrial equipment.
Now running in Viessmann’s Allendorf, Germany, headquarters site, the system is able to locate pallets with specific material numbers and track inventory throughout the factory in real time. Once a pallet has been logged into the system, there is no need for any further scanning to locate materials, the company says.
Viessmann installed the system in its 215,000-square-foot sheet metal production area, where workers transport 1,000 pallets of semi-finished products every day between individual machining centers and the powder plant. Fifteen forklifts equipped with RELAG-System and ANT software now handle that workload over three shifts.
“The new system means the number of forklifts per shift can be reduced by 20%, with search times, startup times, and forklift downtimes a thing of the past,” Udo Ungemach, head of logistics at Viessmann, said in a statement.
The BlueBotics ANT solution deployed on the forklifts uses natural-feature navigation technology based on the identification of permanent features in the environment—such as walls and pillars—to identify the location of each vehicle and then relay this information to the RELAG-System. Next, the RELAG-System dispatches the most suitable vehicle to retrieve each pallet and provides the operator with the most efficient route through the facility, based on the locations and types of forklifts on the shop floor, the trucks’ job schedules, and the pallets’ destinations.
Thanks to that streamlined workflow, the system can optimize forklift utilization, reduce the time needed to retrieve pallets, and cut operational costs, according to Viessmann. The system can also notify an operator if a pallet is placed in the wrong position and analyze vehicle locations to avoid accidents through a collision warning system, automatically slowing vehicles in critical areas.
“Augmenting our workforce with advanced industry-leading tools from BlueBotics helps us serve both our internal and external customers more efficiently,” Ungemach said in the statement. “The system fits well with the lean philosophy of Viessmann and with the need for systems to serve employees and not vice versa. We expect to have a return on our investment within about three years.”