Adding automation technology to improve warehouse operations efficiency is no novel concept. Automatic Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) have been on the scene since the late 1970s, but traditionally these systems were designed as part of a new facility. Today’s food distribution companies are just as interested in the technology, but due to the high cost of land and construction, the trend is now retrofitting existing facilities with AS/RS.
Ken Ruehrdanz, distribution and warehousing market manager of Dematic, located in Grand Rapids, MI, says more than 50 percent of Dematic’s food distribution customers are adding AS/RS to existing buildings, as opposed to building new facilities.
Retrofitting a facility presents unique challenges to the operation, but the return on investment is significant. Proper design, careful preparation and the right equipment can help make the transition a smooth one.
The two most prevalent challenges DCs face during a retrofit are: 1) how to keep materials flowing smoothly while the new infrastructure is being installed, and 2) how to integrate the new AS/RS software with current warehouse control systems (WCS).
Strategies to combat the first obstacle include workarounds, working during off-shifts, clearing paths and maintaining frequent communication between the DC and its customers.
Cory Flemings, executive sales manager, automated systems division, of Schaefer Systems International Inc., Charlotte, NC, notes that these solutions don’t only require logistical planning, but also financial planning.
“During planning, consider all the costs including labor to move your inventory, restocking costs and temporary storage costs,” says Fleming.
The second challenge, IT interface between the enterprise system and the WCS, is another issue that must be addressed during the planning phase.
Today many aspects of the warehouse, including the AS/RS, are controlled by a single WCS. Bruce Boldrin, corporate accounts manager, Daifuku America, Salt Lake City, says the challenge is to integrate the systems so the AS/RS can count inventory, store and retrieve to order, and use the tracking capability to replenish forward picking systems with pallets, totes and cases.
Tom Swovick, system sales manager, food and beverage, for TGW Systems Inc. of Spring Lake, MI, says one other challenge is making sure integral moving parts of the warehouse are compatible with the AS/RS.
“Automation devices require equipment to be repeatable and precise,” says Swovick. “There has to be a lot of care applied to the pallets they’re receiving and handling. They must be square and uniform to help the system work effectively. The AS/RS is more precise than conventional methods, so it needs more precise inputs.”
The solution to all these challenges lay in good and thorough design and preparation on behalf of the entire organization.
The design and planning phase of an AS/RS retrofit can take nearly three times longer than the implementation phase. That is because so many factors need to be taken into consideration. Companies like Daifuku America use sophisticated data collection methods to ensure their retrofit design will meet their customers’ needs.
“We have developed analytical and graphical tools to support in-depth analysis of the current data and operations,” says Boldrin. “We learn their business and the business’ drivers. This front work enables formulation of the specific business objectives and solutions based on the cost/value of rebuilding or replacing equipment and warehouse controls; adding functionality and interfacing to expanded operations.”
Planning and designing for operations expansion is equally important in newly built facilities as it is in retrofits.
A plan for continued growth was a main consideration for LiDestri Foods, located in Fairport, NY, when it built its 200,000-square-foot facility in 1998. LiDestri, a manufacturer of sauces, dips, and salsas for many well-known and private label brands, equipped the facility with an ACTIV System from Retrotech Inc., Victor, NY.