Automation: Taking It To The Next Level

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


Danish material handling company Univeyor says its layer picking equipment can handle on average about 150 layers per hour, with 15-20 cases per layer. That equates to 3,000 cases per hour. To achieve anywhere near this level of throughput in a manual operation would require about 15 people.

At a Kuehne + Nagel facility in Holland equipped with a Univeyor layer picking system, the automated storage area requires only four workers per shift to supervise equipment operation, replenish picking areas and forward completed pallets to the dispatching area. The same area used to require at least 15 people per shift prior to the automation.

As labor is reduced, warehouse operators can also eliminate many of the occupational safety concerns associated with manual case picking because workers do not have to bend and lift cases to take them from one pallet to another. They can also reduce the amount of product damage and picking errors associated with it.

Pick-To-Light Systems Mature

Today's pick to light systems communicate to warehouse workers which items to pick and how many, via lighted numbers that appear above the sections of flow rack where items are stored. Modern systems use a buss bar that is placed along the rack which contains communications and power supply connections for the light modules used in the system. The modules are plugged into the buss bar.

"When you're designing a system, you look at a SKU analysis and with that analysis you do a slotting program," says Bob Rienecke, vice president of business development for Diamond Phoenix, Lewiston, ME.

Slotting programs change all the time, based on seasonal requirements—moving Halloween candy, for example, into easy-to-access areas of flow rack during Halloween and then replacing that with something more popular after the holiday is over.

"What you do is take that item out of the rack position, disconnect that light module off the buss bar and move it into a different area," Rienecke explains. "It's a very dynamic system. You can move things around based on what your order frequency rates or seasonal product demands are."

Companies that are employing older pick to light systems don't have the convenience of a buss bar design incorporated into their systems.

"With the older systems there is no buss bar for communication or power. When you plug the light module under the product, you almost have to daisy chain all the lights together."

He explains that this makes implementing new slotting strategies in the warehouse very difficult and time consuming. "If you're changing the location of these hard-wired devices, you have to go back to your software system and say: ‘here's the new layout, here's how I'm wiring the system based on this location and this light ID.' It's a cumbersome, time-consuming activity." With the newer technology, changes to slotting strategies can be implemented in mere minutes.

"Some of the people who embraced light technology six-to-eight years ago are now saying ‘okay, my business is changing and I really need to update my pick to light system to use this newer module buss bar system.'"

A twist on pick to light is being used by one of Diamond Phoenix's customers—Shopko, a Green Bay, WI-based food chain. In it DC, the company uses Phoenix's pick to light system as a "put-to-light" system. The set-up features flow racks, equipped with light modules, which are designated for each of ShopKo's store locations.
The work process involves the worker scanning different products located on the other side of him, which then prompts the light modules on the racks to tell him that he needs to put so many numbers of the scanned product in certain stores' racks.

"When a carton is full, I pull the carton out of the rack, seal it up, put it on a conveyor and off it goes to shipping," Reinecke explains. "What I'm doing is consolidating store orders and it's all by a light directed approach."

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