Automation Domination

Grocery wholesalers and food distributors are jumping on the automation bandwagon.


AGVs—An Affordable Alternative To Lift Trucks

For many companies, a full-blown AS/RS implementation is financially out of the question—and, in fact, may not even be necessary. Material handling vendors offer a variety of affordable point solutions that can work within an existing warehouse.

For example, the lift truck is the mainstay of the conventional warehouse. Most fundamental activities in the facility, however, can be carried out by automated guided vehicles (AGVs)—eliminating the need for manual lift trucks, according to Mike Kotecki, senior vice president of HK Systems Inc., New Berlin, WI. AGVs automatically move material through a facility without an onboard operator or driver. They have defined paths over which they can navigate. The paths are defined by buried inductive wires, surface mounted magnetic or optical strips, or by laser guidance.

“AGVs were primarily used for transportation, but we’ve extended the reach of an AGV to be comparable to a VNA (very narrow aisle) truck or a small AS/RS,” says Kotecki. “These same vehicles can now do storage and retrieval in racking systems and can conform to a variety of facility types and applications.”

HK recently introduced its “Automate the Conventional” automated solution for conventional warehouses. Designed to lower operating costs, increase inventory accuracy and reduce product and facility damage, the solution replaces list trucks with HK’s fork style AGVs.

One of the greatest advantages of an AGV system, says Kotecki, is that a company can address several challenges without the need to reconfigure conventional rack storage areas. “You don’t have to move the rack or make the ceiling any higher. It’s all retrofittable automation, at the fraction of the price of an AS/RS.”

AGVs can conform to a variety of facility types and applications, every type of pallet movement within a warehouse or distribution center, and store and retrieve in a narrow aisle storage and VNA storage warehouse. AGVs have a number of advantages over lift trucks, including labor savings, reduced product and facility damage, increased productivity and inventory accuracy.

AGVs can also enhance voice picking operations, according to Stuart Edwards, manager, food distribution market, Dematic. “AGVs complement the picking process. With conventional pick to pallet operations, the picker drives the pallet jack to the various pick locations. On completion of the order, the picker moves the completed order pallet to the shipping dock. This leaves inefficiencies due to having a small distance between pick locations because (picker will need to board and alight the pallet jack) and moving the pallet to the shipping dock—all these activities detract from picking productivity.

“The AGV system automatically moves to the correct picking location and moves the completed pallet to the shipping dock without the picker, thereby allowing them to continue picking operations,” says Edwards.

Another example is a semi-automated configuration for accommodating slow-moving inventory. “It includes an AS/RS for staging food products,” says Edwards. “The AS/RS replenishes the pick faces located on the first level. Operators on the outside of the rack pick to pallet from the pick faces. This method reduces the system footprint (eight to one, typically), increases picking productivity since the pick path distance is typically reduced by 75 percent and the replenishment process is fully automated, thereby eliminating labor cost for this function.”

Insourcing Vs. Outsourcing

For companies that outsource their warehousing and transportation operations, automation provides an opportunity to bring those functions in house—and gain better control of their supply chain. “We’re asking manufacturers to reconsider the trade-offs, long term, to insourcing vs. third-party logistics providers,” says Bill Leber, business development manager for Swisslog, Newport News, VA. “Manufacturers that are outsourcing are losing a bit of control and connection down the supply chain.”

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