Automation Solves Modern Problems

Between lack of qualified labor, SKU proliferation and environmental concerns, there's plenty of reasons to consider an AS/RS--despite the hefty price tag.


“While AS/RS implementations are still far from the norm, I have noticed that more food and beverage companies are investing in these solutions,” says Thompson Brockmann, project director for Tompkins Associates, Raleigh, NC.

“The quantitative aspects behind evaluating automated systems have not changed as food companies are looking for a solid return on their investment. In recent years, the AS/RS are offering stronger paybacks due to escalating land costs, construction prices, limited expansion room and higher inventory turns.

“This, combined with increased emphasis on many of the qualitative advantages, such as less dependence on a labor force and increased inventory accuracy, have driven this trend.”

Other factors, according to Ruehrdanz, include the need for “store friendly” order assembly. “We’re seeing warehouse systems that efficiently order select mixed case pallets. Retail stores prefer that pallets delivered to the store be stacked by family groupings and correlate to the store planogram—which speeds restocking and reduces store labor,” says Ruehrdanz. “Furthermore, food businesses that need to build pallets for route delivery require mixed case pallets. High capacity output AS/RS that can rapidly serve up the cases ‘in sequence’ for manual or automated palletizing are required for productive operation.”

Up until a few years ago, environmental factors played a small role in deciding whether or not go with an AS/RS. But an automated facility can significantly reduce energy costs, according to experts. “Energy savings range from 35 percent to 50 percent less with an automated warehouse,” says Ruehrdanz.

“More than 50 percent of the world’s carbon emissions are from the ‘built’ environment. Smaller, more dense warehouses that use less energy to light, heat, cool or freeze are more environmental,” he says.

“Because an automated warehouse features a high bay configuration, a smaller building footprint is required. The smaller building footprint is typically 30 percent of a traditional warehouse. And since the automated warehouse utilizes a high density configuration, less cubic space is required for the same amount of storage. This reduction is approximately 25 percent to 35 percent.”

Laura Walker, marketing manager, Westfalia Technologies Inc., York, PA, says that in refrigerated and frozen warehouses, her company’s clients have seen a 30 percent to 40 percent drop in energy costs alone.

“This is because AS/RS warehouses use less square footage to store the same amount of products as a conventional warehouse—up to 40 percent less square footage. We can go up in levels, up to 140 feet high for dense cubic storage.

Energy costs are higher for cooling than they are for heating, Ruehrdanz points out. “Most loss is from the roof—and a high-bay warehouse has a smaller roof surface.”

Brockmann adds that companies can reduce the access points into climate controlled areas and the time that access points are open. He also points out that AS/RS cranes designs are getting better at matching applications, resulting in smaller motors and some manufacturers, such as Westfalia and H.K. Systems, can even generate their own energy during shuttle descents.

“Our storage/retrieval systems have regenerative breaking, which feeds back the surplus brake energy to the power supply system,” says Westfalia’s Worker.

Worker also points out that since AS/RS systems reduce the need for lift trucks, there is less product and building damage, as well as less dirt and exhaust waste. Plus, there can be a reduction in the use of stretch wrap.

“Smooth handling by some of our solutions, including our Storage/Retrieval Machine, Satellite rack shuttle and conveyors—all with triple rail support available—translates into needing less stretch wrap,” she says. “A reduction in waste is another environmental benefit.”

AUTOMATION CAN BE FLEXIBLE

Flexibility has always been a concern for food companies, but vendors say that these systems are more flexible than most realize.

“Vendors continue to fine tune the crane designs such that they fit a variety of applications and can even provide flexibility into designs for business changes,” says Brockmann.

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