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New warehouse system rises to the challenge of ramped up production

30 March 2020

Britvic is a renowned soft drinks business with a turnover in the region of £1.5 billion and when it unveiled a £240m investment programme to transform its production and supply chain in the UK, it presented an opportunity to Mark Young, site operations manager of its facility in Leeds.

Increasing production isn’t easy, especially when you are constrained within an existing site. Yet that was the challenge facing Mark Young, site operations manager for Britvic in Leeds. The drinks giant wanted to increase throughput at the plant, introducing an additional bottling line, which of course had knock on effects throughout the site. As the site was reconfigured, new sheds were built, temporary buildings were installed, and waste ground was converted to car parking. But arguably the most important part of the revamp was finding a way to cope with greatly increased volumes of palletised goods coming off the production lines. 

Traditionally, Britvic had used a manual operation at the site, relying on forklifts to do the bulk of the lifting and carrying, but Mark saw right away this would not scale further.

He explains: “To maintain the same approach we would have had to add more forklifts and use them in a confined space. As it was, we had to manage the area tightly on forklift movements to make sure it was safe, but it was always difficult and challenging, so it was clear to me that increased throughput would create an unacceptable health and safety risk.”

The decision was made to automate the pallet warehouse on site, and a bridging solution - a manually operated shuttle system was installed. The more permanent solution was a choice was between a shuttle-based system and stacker crane style ASRS. 

“Considering the space issues we had on site and the number of pallet spaces we would need, we needed to have dense racking,” says Mark. “We also wanted to make it future proof, so we could have an opportunity to change the use of the area, if we wanted to. This is why we stepped away from having a crane shed, built inside out. The price-per-pallet was also better with the shuttle option and it allowed us to work in stages. So we built a standard, food-safe warehouse and contracted Logistex to design and build the shuttle-based automation.”

“People's mindsets have had to change on how to work the system best, because what used to be really difficult is now really easy.”

The automated pallet warehouse has 15,000 pallet locations and is served by two in-feed and out-feed lifts. It is controlled using pre-designed rules by Logistex’s LWS Reflex WCS. The pallet shuttles, provided by Automha, are made up of ‘mover’ vehicles which travel along the front of the racking, and satellites which go into the lanes for the automatic collection and storage of pallets. The satellites use capacitors rather than batteries for power so there is no need for prolonged charging periods. Logistex is the official distributor for Automha in the UK.

With the additional line, and the faster throughput offered by the pallet warehouse, the despatch process has improved by leaps and bounds at the Leeds facility.

Anthony Martin, drive site team leader at Britvic. explains more.

“We are 18 months down the line now and I think we're pretty much there. Coping with 100 loads a day doesn’t scare me, whereas before this system was implemented 50 loads was a massive day and the average was around 30 loads. So we've tripled that old average easily. That extra volume means the system will pay for itself in no time. What’s more, we can ship all that and a visitor will think we are having a quiet day because it's so smooth and organised now.”

There is still some spare capacity in the system.

“I expect there'll be a day either during a Christmas period or a hot summer where we could get to 120 loads per day. In theory, it can pick 10 loads an hour, which is 240 per day, but you need everything else to fall into place. You need the wagons to arrive on time etc.”

The extra warehouse space has also helped Britvic to even out the workload, so it has less dramatic upturns in work when approaching Peaks than in the past. 

The new system has meant some unexpected changes to the nature of the job.

Previously if a 26 pallet load comprised pallets located in different racks, this was a difficult load to pick because of the warehouse layout and the use of forklifts.

Mark explains: “Even when it was semi-automated, it was quite difficult to pick, with the shuttle putting in a lot of work to pick one pallet from each rack. So it could take 90 minutes to two hours. 

“But with the automated system, that's actually the quickest load. With 26 pallets in different locations, we can use all four lifts, so can pick this in about 15 minutes. We can have it on the trailer in 20-25 minutes. This despatch efficiency allows us to focus on utilisation of trailers and the shunt operation more.

“This has meant people's mindsets have had to change on how to work the system best, because what used to be really difficult is now really easy.”

The new system has had other knock-on effects on the warehouse. Automation tends to result in a reduction in staff, but it also tends to mean that a team leader’s skill set has to be broader, with a wider understanding of process, which in turn impacts recruitment.

“We recruit on behaviours and certain skills and abilities and it can prove challenging. You have an expectation of where people need to be when they start,” says Mark.

“Adaptability is important, you need to be able to accept of new ways of working. People should have a mechanical or quality bias, and accept safe work is paramount.”

The system has also lowered staff stress levels.

Anthony Martin explains: “The system has taken a lot of the stress off the guys in the office because before this came in, everything was manual. We were working against the clock all the time. But now the system automatically takes care of so much. So the guys can concentrate on other tasks, and it has helped us to upskill workers. The system has improved health and safety a heck of a lot, it’s very well organised. We're doing three times as much work, but the system has made the job much easier.”

While the new automated pallet warehouse has had a profound impact on workers at the Leeds site, it has also led to operational changes. For example, the automated system requires pallets of a consistently higher quality than before. The profiling station checks the integrity of the pallet as it enters the automated warehouse, that it is not overweight, that it is wrapped correctly etc.

Safety

We have seen how safety was a key driver in the decision to automate the pallet warehouse at Britvic’s Leeds site. This is typical of Britvic’s approach to operations, explains Mark.

“Britvic is a very safety driven organisation. We look closely at near misses and lost time accidents, to spot patterns and act on them. We have a culture of identifying safety issues, positive and negative. 

“We call it ‘contribution to safety’. So each person, every month makes a contribution to making the facility safer, whether it's identifying a truck driver that's driving too quickly or a lorry driver who isn't wearing his PPE or somebody that is wearing correct PPE and thanking him for doing so.”

Britvic has targets on accident reduction and shares lessons learned to help drive this.

“So if somebody has an accident, even if it is just a cut thumb, lessons learned will be shared across sites,” says Mark.

“We've had some issues where we’ve used liquid filled tun containers. We've had some issues with opening those. In terms of lessons learned, we've made sure our training is impeccable and we share the incidents with people on site. If you don't follow the training on how to use the packaging correctly, there's a significant chance of a bad injury. Operators on the ground have responded really well. At the start of the shift rotation, each team is given a safety brief where they discuss issues that might have happened in the last period or best practices being shared on training days.”

Britvic presents awards throughout the year to reward people, for example, if they've carried out a good project on safety. It also promotes instant recognition, e.g. giving people vouchers for good work on the ongoing safety of the facility. 

“We work hard not to focus on blame,” says Mark. “Our aim is for nobody else to have suffer the issue in future.”

Over the last ten years, there has been a real focus on driving health and safety throughout the business, and throughout the supply chain across the UK. 

“We really started to focus on team buy-in and understanding how people behave, and how that has a significant impact on how safe the working environment is. The biggest change in safety is the cultural change in that every staff member now understands their impact on safe working.

“Fifteen years ago there was a lot of accepted practices that are not acceptable now, and were unsafe, but were custom and practice. But people that were doing those practices now understand why they shouldn't be doing them. Communication is much better.”

Anthony says: “We have a contract with CHEP for pallets, it is our only supplier. We quickly realised the pallets had to be in better condition. So we got CHEP in and they've put in extra resources to double check the pallets. We've got a good relationship with them.”

The automation means Britvic must have a regimented preventative maintenance schedule. The uptime expected is very high and critical pieces of equipment, once they stop, can have a significant impact on production.

Mark says: “The PM schedule is critical and we need to be able to adapt and fix issues quite quickly that have not been picked up on the PM schedule. So the level of skill of the operators and engineers is really key.

“It’s important to learn from incidents to make sure they don't happen again, you must ensure you have the parts on site to fix the issues, and make sure your partner is aligned with the issues you have on the ground. We largely manage this with an internal team, while Logistex supplies us with one embedded engineer per shift.”

Key Points

  • 15,000 pallet locations
  • Pallet profile and integrity check
  • 2 storage blocks - 2 infeed and 2 outfeed lifts 
  • 6 pairs of despatch lanes with one single lane
  • Accepts ISO and EURO pallets
  • Uses Automha shuttle powered by capacitor
  • Throughput capability 288 pallets received and despatched per hour (theoretical)
  • On-site residential support
  • Powered by LWS Reflex WCS

This deals with simple things such as a chain breaking, motor, contact, or sensor failure. More complex issues, for example with the software, are dealt with via a helpline to Logistex as an automation specialist is needed for programming issues.

Britvic is spending a lot of money to revamp operations in the UK, so change has come the norm for the company in recent years. As we saw earlier, Mark, in part, chose the Logistex automated solution because he was keen for the Leeds facility to be as flexible as possible to give scope for change in the future if circumstances demand it.

Looking to the future, does the warehouse now match up to Britvic’s likely demands?

“We have a warehouse that can keep up with growth plans for the foreseeable future,” says Mark. “Utilisation needs to go hand in glove with the growth plan. You want a shed that’s running 90-95% full, but matching your output. It is costing you money when it's empty, and it’s costing you money when you don't have enough. The key is forecasting sales correctly and using flex at times (for example, temporary buildings) to cover over-production of, or if you have spare capacity you can sell it to other people.”

In summary, Mark says: “Automating the end of line has allowed us to move more pallets per hour than we could previously move. This has helped us improve our customer service figures out of Leeds while adhering to our health and safety needs.” 

 
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