Automation: Taking It To The Next Level

Food warehouses gain efficiency, improve productivity and reduce labor costs with automated material handling systems.


"For most retail companies, with manual solutions they try to arrange their pick slots in a sort of snake-like picking method where they pick based on weight and crushability factors, things like that. But you do not have much flexibility of changing that order or sequence," says Sherman. "What an automated picking solution does is allow us to set parameters for specific store friendliness and aisle friendliness, so when you actually get to the store delivery, it decreases the stocking time at the store. So not only are we saving labor in the warehouse, we're also saving labor in the store itself."

One of Witron's newest automated picking applications is its OPM (order picking machinery) system, which automates case picking. Sherman says OPM is a good solution for retailers that must supply thousands of SKUs to hundreds of stores each day. The system reduces operational and transportation costs and provides store-friendly as well as aisle-friendly sequencing.

One of Witron's customers is Sobey's Inc., Canada's second-largest grocery retailer. Sobey's will be using the OPM system in its new automated distribution center in Ontario, Canada. Witron is overseeing the planning and implementation of the material handling system, which will feature 11 AS/RS pallet cranes that service 38,000 locations and 32 AS/RS miniload cranes with access to 340,000 tray locations.

Most of the case picking will be automated through the use of the OPM system. Order pallets will be automatically assembled by 16 "picking machines" that are installed on two-levels of the warehouse. The picking machines will be fed by the tray AS/RS system, which will also be constructed on two levels. A three aisle "pick to pallet" system with voice control and automated replenishment will supplement the system to handle peak volumes as well as bulky goods.

HK Systems recently released its Case-A-Matic automated case picking system. The machine relies on seven load extractors operating independently to achieve throughput rates of up to 400 cases per hour. The company installed the system at a beverage distributor this past June and the customer plans to roll it out to locations around the country.

"We take full pallets from the conventional warehouse area and they're completely dismantled into eaches or layers and then stored as eaches or layers," says Lyon. "As orders come down to fulfill customer orders, the Case-A-Matic picks the individual cases and the layers and combine those together to make a customer-ready pallet. There are only three to five people supporting this type of operation—where you might have had 20 plus in a conventional warehouse."

Lyon says the system can also work for grocery selection. His company was just awarded a multiple site system for a food wholesaler that is in the implementation phase right now.

Layer Pickers Grow In Popularity

The use of layer pickers is growing in popularity, according to solution providers. Automated layer pickers rely on robotics to pull a layer of products—usually containing between 15 and 20 cases each—from storage and move the layer to an order pallet for shipment. The robots typically pull the products using drive belts, clamps, vacuum suction or lifts.

Some systems break down the pallets right at the receiving dock and store them in the racks as layers. Others store full pallets in the racks and those pallets are later moved to a picking station to be broken apart by the automated equipment.

The systems can also be used to depalletize whole layers to feed cross-docking applications or to replace pallets with slip sheets.

"If you can store and push out a full pallet load of product, it is still the most efficient way to do things, but many customers are not doing that now. Among DCs that serve retailers, a lot more is being done in layers," says Juergen Baumbach, director of consulting services for Switzerland-based material handling systems provider Swisslog.

"Pure pallet handling is more attractive, but many retailers are now looking for rainbow pallets to reduce the amount of inventory they carry," he continues. "The business case for them is lower inventory costs."

Where that is not possible, layer and case picking technology "is a benefit to whoever has to put together a rainbow pallet because you do not have to have people handling individual cases," says Baumbach. "In the time that a person can handle one case, automation can handle a full layer."

Typically, it takes about 40 seconds for an automated layer picker to grab a full layer of cases from storage and move it to an order pallet.

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