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|Pandemic and uncertainty but no time to panic||15/06/2020|
The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics showed the damage to the economy wrought by the pandemic. GDP fell by 20.4% in April, following a fall of 5.8% in March.
This is an unprecedented slump, in more ways than one. First, it’s a much steeper decline than even during the recession. But it stands apart also because, while it’s a big drop, it doesn’t reflect an underlying trend. It’s the very definition of a one-off event. The only uncertainty is we don’t know when the ‘event’ will end, or whether it will ebb and flow or disappear as abruptly as it arrived.
But, if you look a little below the surface, you can see the economy moving ahead at pace, particularly in the logistics sector.
Recent weeks have seen the completion of major warehouses for AO.com, Europa Warehouse and more. The 715,000 sq ft Europa facility in Corby, in particular, looks a belter, with three mezzanine floors and VNA racking to 18 metres.
It is to the great credit of those working on these projects that they have managed to safely power on despite the pandemic. It shows how flexible and productive we can be in the face of this challenge.
Therefore, I wouldn’t get too carried away by the ONS figures.
In a similar vein, I am not too encouraged by the drop in carbon emissions and pollution over the last few months. Obviously this does not mean we have suddenly turned a corner and become more green. Yes, maybe we will appreciate the cleaner air and change our attitudes but in the short term, it is obvious that as the economy returns to normal, as it must, so will pollution and emission levels return to the higher levels we saw before the pandemic.
|No shortage of ingenuity||25/05/2020|
At the time of writing we are entering a new phase of the pandemic. The Government is not exactly rushing people back to work but is certainly trying to get some sectors such as manufacturing and construction moving again in a meaningful way.
Getting back to work should help arrest the economy’s freefall and will hopefully pave the way for a broader relaxation of the lockdown, with retail to come perhaps in the summer, and the possibility of schools re-opening before the end of the term. But it is a fragile situation and we don’t have a lot of data to base decisions on. We have a fair grasp of the number of deaths, but crucially we don’t know how many people have been infected, because testing has been very limited.
Therefore we can only really guess at how infectious or deadly the coronavirus is. As I said, we are moving into a new phase, but daily death tolls will be watched closely and the need to frequently make transitions from phase to phase could become a key part of this, We need to be prepared to tighten the lockdown as well as further loosen restrictions, according to the reality we are presented with.
One thing is for sure, the logistics sector has responded with speed and flexibility to the emergency, which we dealt with in the last issue. In this issue, I’d like to highlight the suppliers that have adapted their solutions quickly and intelligently to deal with the unprecedented dangers logistics businesses now face.
BS Handling is a systems integrator typically associated with automated warehousing, but it has very quickly developed a system for cleaning and sanitising premises, cutting down the risk of transmitting infections.
Another fast mover is ASG Services, which has quickly rolled out a range of robust safety signage and floormarking solutions to help you adapt to the pandemic (Page 57).
COVID-19 social distancing solutions of a different type are being developed by CopriSystems. The bespoke structures manufacturer is quickly developing tunnels and walkway covers, complete with electronic doors, to help companies manage people entering and exiting a building while maintaining efficient operations within social distancing constraints. The structures can be used for safe queuing, social distancing, additional storage and logistics space as well as testing stations and decontamination zones.
Automation & robotics
We have seen a long trend towards greater automation and robotics in logistics, and the pandemic has only increased this trend. It was very interesting to hear consultancy BearingPoint say warehouses that invested early in automation have adapted best to the crisis. And obviously with shops closing, the online market has become even more important still. It’s hard to say what the new normal will be, partly because we don’t know if the path out of this criss will be swift and abrupt, or if it will be prolonged and bumpy.
But for sure, if you are a retailer and you are not investing in online, and probably in automation too, then you’re just playing dice with your future. We have a feature on Automation & Robotics in this issue. I was delighted to speak to Crystal Parrott, VP of Dematic’s Robotics Centre of Excellence, one of the technology leaders in the field. It provided a fascinating snapshot into the use of picking robotics in logistics, with insight into the fast developing world of micro-fulfillment, the limits of grippers and much else.
We’ve also noted an increasing trend towards the use of AMRs, or mobile robots, in the warehouse. This was pioneered by Kiva Systems (bought and widely deployed by Amazon) and the tech’s IP has now opened up considerably. We are seeing a lot of manufacturers and they have been busy signing up UK partners in a bid to crack the local market.
|What counts in a crisis? Cash or capability?||30/03/2020|
I recently listened in on an interesting webinar from Paul Cuatracasas, founder and CEO of Aquaa Partners, who spoke on tech, aviation and the broader supply chain in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
His key take was that the pandemic had brought a long standing trend to a head - traditional hard asset firms are being eclipsed in terms of market capitalisation and strategic flexibility by younger, fast-moving tech firms.
He thinks this could be accelerated by deepening Government money-printing, which could de-value currencies. He then thinks a flight to safety will benefit the cash-rich tech firms.
It is an interesting thesis but in my view, it could just as easily fall the other way. If we see greater inflation and that hits the economy hard, safety may be in hard assets not ultimately frivolous tech firms with inflated values.
Facebook might have an enormous market cap, but if it disappeared tomorrow, the world would not fall apart. Facebook isn’t real life, it’s an abstraction and the connections it makes can be quite easily achieved a thousand other ways. Arguably, its real value is limited.
A large transport company on the other hand may have very modest profits and market cap, but if it disappeared tomorrow it would have very tangible and damaging impacts on the real world. What it does cannot be easily achieved via other means. It has enduring value.
So what counts?
It depends who decides. If the financial world decides, they’ll back where the bulk of their money is, i.e. the tech firms. But if Governments are ultimately making his decision, they are more likely to place value on the human and material assets out in the world.
So, the real question is then, who is the ultimate authority that gets to make that decision, the ‘markets’ or Governments? I don’t think it’s clear who ultimately would hold sway.
Note - for the sake of this editorial, we’ve made some assumptions that we hope will not come to pass. That is, we hope increased QE does not lead to inflation, we hope the economic paralysis caused by the COVDI19 crisis does not last too long, and that neither Governments, nor markets are forced to make stark decisions on the economy.
|Logistics - this is your time||20/07/2020|
People don’t always see the value of warehousing and logistics but the coronavirus crisis has really brought home how essential it is.
Emergency services and utilities engineers are readily seen as vital frontline staff, but it’s time to recognise logistics alongside them, and as the backbone of the UK economy. In reality, this has long been the case, and yet industry associations have seen their pleas for recognition and respect repeatedly ignored.
I hope this will now change as, for as long as this crisis lasts, we are all going to rely very heavily on the dedication of people working in logistics, particularly in food supply. So here’s to all the lorry drivers, warehouse staff and planning teams. Thank you and be safe.
As a media outlet, we will do all we can to make sure you have industry-specific information on best practice to help you perform your jobs to the best of your ability.
The Nineteen Group have made a prudent decision to delay The Health & Safety Event in the light of the coronavirus crisis. It was due to take place at the end of April at the NEC and this has now been put back to later in the year. It will now take place on Sept 22-23, once again at the NEC in Birmingham. You can read the full story here.
The health and safety of attendees and exhibitors must be the top priority for everyone at this uncertain and worrying time. Indeed, we have seen a number of large scale exhibitions such as LogiMAT in Germany, and MACH in the UK making similar decisions.
We do need to strike a balance between business as usual, particularly with regards to key services, with warehousing, logistics and supply chain being, of course, front and centre in these considerations, and making sure unnecessary risks are not taken.
This is easier said than done and the next few months will be a learning process for all involved as we grapple with these unprecedented circumstances. But, as I said earlier, life goes on.
The warehouses and logistics networks of the UK must be efficient – now more than ever. The products and innovations that would have been on show at events such as LogiMAT have by no means diminished in importance. These products are still needed and warehouse operations still need to continually improve.
Handling & Storage Solutions magazine aims to be a coronavirus-proof information delivery vehicle for the industry to provide the guidance and product information to help you in your vital roles.
In this issue, we have a very timely Special Report on Warehouse Optimisation. We’ve broken this down into optimising space and optimising process, although to be honest, they often go hand in hand. Indeed one of the key warehouse challenges is balancing optimal use of storage space with throughput speed.
We lead this Special Report with an in-depth report from Britvic. I went up to Leeds recently to chat with team there and saw how they had to re-engineer their facility to cope with a big investment in new production lines. The warehouse and despatch side of the ops had to get some big decisions right to keep pace. It was a sizeable investment and that came with the potential for disruption, but has paid off with numerous benefits in throughput, capacity, and safety.
There are always winners in every situation, and it seems Ocado is very busy as consumers ramp up orders, stockpiling essentials ahead of potential anticipated shortages. Certainly, this must be a tonic for the innovative online retailer after a very expensive year. The firm has faced two massive outgoings, each hovering around the £100m mark.
The first was payouts to board members for achieving and sustaining massive growth in market capitalisation over the last five years. The second was costs associated with a fire that burned the Andover distribution centre to the ground. The firm lost over £200m in the last financial year, and what is perhaps just as worrying for the long term, it has always struggled for profit. It’s one thing riding the helter skelter of fast growth, quite another turning that into sustainable profit. It has always been an issue for Ocado, and when you consider the next big step, it doesn’t look like it will get easier.
Ocado is set to build and run a number of fulfilment centres in partnership with other retailers around the world from Europe, to the USA to Asia. Large scale building projects are tough enough in your home market, but tackling multiple projects all around the world at the same time seems very risky to me. Coronavirus, Aussie bush-fires, the China-USA ‘trade war’, even Brexit, all show how delicate supply chains can be and how they can be readily disrupted.
Simon Duddy, Editor
|What’s all the fuss about…||19/02/2020|
Automation, robotics and solving the picking conundrum in Omni-channel retail?
We tackle automation for online grocers, automated picking options, as well as inventory counting robots and much else. Insights include: It is reckoned a manual picker can spend up to 60-70% of their time walking between picks. That’s a lost of waste. What can you do about it?
Goods to persons automated systems are said to improves pick rate by a factor of ~2.5. AutoStore is said to be the fastest robotic goods-to-person system on the market, with the potential to remove the most pickers from a given environment. On the other hand autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can bring savings to operations that have throughputs that are small compared to AutoStore style deployments, and they can be set up quickly and deployed more flexibly, particularly in tandem, with RaaS, robotics-as-a-service. It is well worth exploring with the plethora of vendors bringing robots to the market.
Be sure to keep an eye on Handling & Storage solutions to find out who’s who in this new and exciting category of solutions providers. Did you know…. A major courier is planning a 363,000 sq ft facility in the UK. Due for completion in 2022, it will initially process 1.3 million parcels daily. Read on for a broad scope of the options that make Billy Whizz look like a slowcoach.
Diesel not dead
Diesel is far from dead but it is starting to be marginalised. Tighter rules and regs, for example, ULEZ in cities, and stringent regulations for engine manufacturers, mean diesel driven cars, forklifts and other machinery, will be increasingly expensive and limited in their applications. Not to panic, as diesel will still have an important role to play in the right application for many years to come. The wind of the future will not blow everything towards electric - we just don’t have the generating capacity for start - but you can certainly hear the wind whistling through the pylons. I recently visited German intralogistics specialist Jungheinrich in Hamburg and saw it is betting heavily on electric and lithium batteries as the forklift power combo of tomorrow’s warehouse. Jungheinrich is a big player, with annual revenues of around 4 billion euros, but not quite as big as major rivals such as the Kion Group and Toyota Industries. Perhaps this is part of the reason it is seeking to specialise, relative to the approach of its rivals. The infrastructure it is building around lithium based forklifts is remarkable. The forklift is very much the central part of it, but just a part. It has set up JT Energy Systems, a joint venture with Triathlon, dedicated to lithium battery manufacturing and recycling. Jungheinrich has expanded its range of lithium chargers and energy storage devices, including models designed for outside use. Jungheinrich explained these devices could be used to help manage power draw efficiently, allow companies to take advantage of off-peak charging, and integrate with renewables as part of an energy management solution provided by the manufacturer. It also previewed the P30i electric counterbalance truck, which it claims will be a one-for-one replacement for any IC truck in any task, regardless of performance workload or outside conditions. The truck is expected to launch to market in late 2021.
Consider entering the Safer Logistics category at the Safety & Health Excellence (SHE) Awards. If you have a great project or initiative that has helped boost the safety of your logistics operation, get in touch and you could be set for a night of glory among 550 of your peers on April 29 at the Vox Arena in Birmingham. The deadline for enttry has been extended to March 15. Check out the entry criteria at www.she-awards.com/awards
|Impressive innovation on view||26/11/2019|
AI and big data are not yet able to cut through the chaos and unpredictability of online retail.
The automated intralogistics provider says this means warehouse automation needs to be flexible enough to deal with the unpredictable demand. With this end in mind, TGW has designed its automation solutions to be channel independent.
That is, one system will handle any combination of orders regardless of whether the ultimate destination is to store, wholesaler or to the consumer’s front door. One example is Puma, which has a new DC opening in Germany in 2021 (By the way, Puma have been busy in Yorkshire too).
At the core of the system is TGW’s FlashPick for automated single-item picking. It will have 713,000 storage locations, with some 122,000 SKUs. The plan is to ship 74m units per year, with a B2B Peak picking 13,500 cartons per hour, and the B2C peak picking 124,000 pieces per day.
Modern counterbalance truck
Linde’s fleet management software Connect will be included as standard, an increasingly common move, as Toyota now issues its fleet management software I_Site on all warehouse trucks. The new Linde forklift is the start of a new form factor, which will apply to all Linde counterbalance models under 5 tonnes loading capacity, regardless of the power source used.
This should lead to fewer components used and manufacturing savings, giving scope for lower cost trucks.
|Be ready for on the spot inspections||01/10/2019|
As Halloween approaches, be aware that scares can come in many guises.
A company was recently fined £100,000 for poor warehouse safety practice - http://bit.ly/2Hi1Fxg
What stood out here was there was no incident.
It was enough for someone to spot the poor practice, report it, and for the HSE to prosecute the possibility a serious incident could occur.
At last year’s SEMA Safety Conference, Terry Mallard, health and safety inspector at Birmingham City Council, warned attendees about this very point. He explained: “I have come across businesses where I suspect practices are unsafe and have carried out on the spot inspections. Remember, it is not necessary for someone to have been injured for them to be served legal notice.”
The next SEMA Safety Conference is coming up soon on Halloween (Oct 31) - see details here - http://bit.ly/2oSbGef
It would be great to see you at the event!
Writing about warehouse robots this morning has got me thinking about software and AI.
The IDC research highlighted a key challenge in the supply chain.
‘The biggest source of waste in the supply chain has always been non-value-adding (or value-destroying) movement of material; for example, when a product is moved between locations and no improvement that the customer is willing to pay for is made. Essentially, any moving of a pallet, a case, or a single item that costs more than the value added by the movement can be viewed as waste.’
IDC says autonomous mobile robots are built to reduce this waste in the supply chain and in the process free up people to focus on adding value.
‘In addition to wasted movement of material, human movements can be considered waste as well. Anytime a person is used to scan something, push a cart through a facility, or perform other low-value tasks that can be automated with AMRs, it becomes an opportunity to increase operational performance with the help of AMRs.’
That is true but regardless of the carrier, be it human, robot or mechanical vehicle, or some combination of them all, it is the software directing them that will be most responsible for reducing waste. After all, a poorly directed robot will still make a lot of wasted movements.
If you are in discussions with robot providers, it is definitely well worth spending at least as much time on the software and artificial intelligence the firm is using as the hardware. And don’t forget the human resources they will devote to implementation and support.
|A whole lot of metal…||05/07/2019|
If you grew up in the 1980s like I did, you no doubt well remember how prevalent metal-heads were. There they were, big, greasy hairballs, on every street corner, with ghetto-blasters and denim jackets with band patches. All spandex, pimples and loud, rock anthems from the likes of AC/DC, Iron Maiden and maybe even Black Sabbath.
A whole lot of metal… a bit like the modern automated warehouse. It can be a problem. Operators get frightened by all that metal. First of all, the more there is, the more it costs. Secondly, large automated warehouses have historically tended to be inflexible and the worry is that if order volumes and profiles change enough, you could end up with a white elephant.
Witron touched on the first challenge recently when it spoke about key challenges facing the retail sector, saying it was aiming for ‘compact design, as well as short and transparent material flows, minimising the conveyors required’.
I think this is a key point. Economy of design and flexibility are both needed for warehouse automation to continue its growth.
Robotic single item picking is often thought of as the holy grail of automation. I think it is important, but I wouldn’t call it the Holy Grail. Sooner of later, robots will be more efficient at picking than people, but will it really mean a revolutionary change? After all, people are pretty good at picking.
I think the real holy grail of warehouse automation is a system that does not require enormous new infrastructure to boost efficiency, and can be overlaid on the existing warehouse.
Maybe we are seeing early signs of this in robotic automation that can learn to navigate any environment, and in software-based systems that can direct and co-ordinate a wide variety of different types of equipment and processes.
The extent to which automated technology and methodology can be overlaid on existing ‘caveman’ era warehousing and yet be robust enough to work and pay dividends in tiers of efficiency, that is the holy grail.
Check out our upcoming Automation & Robotics feature in the July / August issue for more discussion on key topics such as this. Get in touch with Angela Lyus for advertising opportunities at email@example.com
|Energy flashpoint looms in warehouse||17/06/2019|
Energy has rarely been a major concern in the warehouse. That might’ve been different, for a number of reasons. First, it could have been an environmental priority. In 2006, The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change suggested the corporate world was finally getting behind the drive towards a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way of doing business. But a few years later the recession hit and the momentum faltered.
Nowadays, ‘green issues’ are perceived as the priority of young people. For businesses, the focus is more on cost and while firms often unveil ‘eco bling’ projects, it does not always filter down to on-the-ground reality. In the last decade, if you wanted to make an environmental gain, you had to make sure it saved money too. This has served some technologies such as LED lighting very well. But while some energy bills have been coming down, others have been on the rise, to the extent that continuity of supply could be emerging as a real issue.
Recently, at the Warehouse Technology Group Live event in Manchester (full write-up next month), Kevin Mofid, director of research, Savills highlighted this. He spoke about a 2 million sq ft fully-automated warehouse that was planned, which would use ‘almost as much energy in a year as Lincolnshire’. He asked the audience: is anyone coming up with innovative energy solutions? A large scale distribution centre needs 3-13Mva, which is roughly equivalent to that needed for 10,000 three bedroom homes.
Mofid said: “If you add in electric vans and cars, energy supply will get out of hand. We advise you to think about it now, consider how to secure power supply, or think of off-grid solutions. There are also many National Grid substations with low power supply, that will require upgrade to facilitate major warehouses. If you are thinking of locating a new warehouse in England and look at a venn diagram of energy, labour and land availability, there are few places where they meet optimally.”
There are certainly instances of companies trying new things to save energy. In this issue we have a case study featuring a cold chain firm that has made the most of its electricity by carefully responding to demand and feeding energy back to the grid for profit when it can.
I also interviewed Jason Hibbs, MD of HVAC firm Jet Environmental and he outlined the increasing challenge of maintaining temperature control in ever larger, and more automated warehouses. Jet is looking at the next evolution in energy saving by using predictive analysis. This means taking into account weather forecast data and altering controls proactively, using nature to save on cooling.
Simon Duddy is an experienced B2B editor and has worked across a range of titles including Handling & Storage Solutions, Heating & Ventilating News and Arabian Computer News.