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Small parts, big issues

12 December 2012

There are challenges to overcome to ensure small parts can be handled, stored and picked effectively. HSS asks key industry players how it is done

There are challenges to overcome to ensure small parts can be handled, stored and picked effectively. HSS asks key industry players how it is done

Small parts storage is coming to greater prominence with the growth of online retailing and the proliferation of smaller one item picks. But the storage of small parts can add a great deal of complexity to a warehouse manager's operations, as Keith Couzens of Couzens Storage Solutions explains.

“In many cases the smaller the parts, the bigger the challenge. The quantities involved may run into tens of thousands, and items such as electronic components or pharmaceutical products may well have a stock value of millions of pounds,” he says. “Challenges include storage itself, how to place and retrieve any one of perhaps tens of thousands of items quickly, without error - and how to maintain real time stock information.”

Taking the first of these concerns, storage, the main problem with small parts is density. Small parts are often stored on shelves and low height shelving within easy operator reaching distance, which means lots of aisles and wasted space.

One way of getting around this is by deploying carousels. Kardex sales manager materials handling, Richard Price says: “Vertical carousels are ideally suited to small components and ensure huge space savings. BAE Systems is a Kardex customer that has achieved 66% floor space saving by using a Kardex vertical carousel.”

BAE manufactures up to 100 different products at any one time with 17,500 components held in store.

The aviation giant's stores controller Iain Whyte adds: “With vertical storage you don't need the same footprint of storage space.We are limited to 3 metre machines because of our roof height. However, even at that height our machines have 48 shelves and we get 13 bins to each shelf.”

In addition, warehouse managers could look at shelving systems that provide high density storage, according to SSI Schaefer's business development manager Bob Jane. “Standard configuration R3000 shelving offers up to 1,680 locations per metre squared at a height of two metres. Even higher space gains can be made with increases of 80% by using mobile shelving when density overrides the need for instant availability,” he says.

Another factor to consider when choosing a small parts storage system is accurate picking. Picking accuracy, speed and system costs are three key decision makers or breakers when installing the right picking system.

Also, identification and verification of the product is complicated, especially if there are some visual challenges thrown into the mix, for example: the area is not well lit; the products look very similar; or the products actually are very similar, such as screws. Ensuring that what you've picked is what you should have picked is a key issue. Picking can also be aided by positive identification from clearly visible locations, improving both picking speeds and productivity.

Using a pick to light system is one solution. The IT integration of pick to light systems also allows each each pick and place to be instantly updated to the system for efficient stock control.

Kardex's Price says of advanced picking systems.“High picking accuracy can be ensured by using storage systems that use pick to light technology. If there is a massive variation of different products, identifying that you've got exactly the right one in a completely manual system is always going to be an issue. Pick to light technology comes into its own here because it gives the operator an explicit direction about where to pick and ambiguity is never an issue.”

One of many examples of pick to light technology is SSI Schaefer's i-Pick, which consists of a touch-screen PC with preinstalled i-Pick software. SSI says i-Pick will increase warehouse output levels by 300% and can be installed without external support.

A third key factor is security, after all valuable things often come in small packages. Security must be a focus when choosing the right small parts storage system and warehouse managers should be looking to develop a secure stores area for high value items.When using shelving, look for shelf units that can be secured with lockable doors or drawers.

Carousels and lifts also provide strong security. Items can be enclosed inside a steel box, and the systems can make use of security technologies such as badges, passwords and biometric protection. Individual trays or groups of products can be protected in the same way, permitting different levels of access according to need and approval, providing a higher level of security.

There are challenges to overcome to ensure small parts can be handled, stored and picked effectively but with advanced systems such as carousels and pick to light, the warehouse manager can create an efficient process that will not only overcome challenges but greatly enhance operations.