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The good, the bad & the ugly

21 January 2013

Some automated warehouses deliver outstanding advances in performance while others have almost brought their owners to their knees, says Derek Kay, business development director of Logistex.

Some automated warehouses deliver outstanding advances in performance while others have almost brought their owners to their knees, says Derek Kay, business development director of Logistex

The biggest lesson I have learned from more than 20 years of implementing automated warehouse solutions is that there are no guarantees or magic formulae. Problems can arise from the most unexpected quarters but there are a number of key principles that should ensure that the system delivers to specification and within budget.

The most useful way to understand how to succeed is to take a look at some real life projects we have implemented, the issues raised and what we can learn from other people's experiences. Managers and senior staff are frequently thrust into the limelight and put in charge of a project, bright-eyed and enthusiastic, faced with a heavy responsibility to recommend the right solution.

Let's start by looking at a project we recently completed for Jamie at Home, an eCommerce web portal for independent agents to order goods they sell at homebased parties. The company's growth plans far exceeded the capacity of its WMS to cope and it needed to find a new system able to tackle higher volumes. Agents' orders need to be picked as a batch but separately identified for individual customer invoicing. Paradoxically, we did not automate any part of the process. We concluded that the right answer was to provide a flexible, modern WMS that could work with a manual system, but which had the capacity to operate a more automated process when needed.

Which leads to the first lesson - only specify an automated process if the operational throughputs require it.

Automation is not the answer in every case. Unfortunately suppliers who are manufacturers with factories to feed will understandably propose a solution involving automated equipment as that's what they have to sell, even if it is not necessarily the optimum solution.

VOW, the UK's biggest b2b stationery supplier, recognised its business was moving away from bulk shipments and towards more picked stock, as customers moved towards holding less stock on their premises. The existing operation was highly labour-intensive as operatives needed to visit the same location several times and spent time travelling on pick walks. The solution we implemented for VOW was a simple order forwarding operation with SKUs arranged into pick zones served by a controlled conveyor loop. Pickers are now assigned to a pick zone or zones, which means stock is more efficiently stored and pickers no longer have to walk to various locations.

Orders are released by the WMS with totes launched onto the conveyor and a tour of picking zones where the operator picks and scans each item.

Our LWS Reflex product was deployed to interface with the client's WMS to manage the automation process. While an essentially simply system, we designed it to ensure that it could consider and adapt to events such as a changed or cancelled order, handling peak throughputs, operator speed, detours when a picking spur is full and so on.

Which leads to rule 2 - do not underestimate the level of sophistication needed for the control system; identify exceptional events and ensure plans are in place to handle them. Materials handling machines are only made of metal and it's the underlying control system that makes or breaks how the warehouse works.

B&Q's main UK distribution centre is a highly automated and sophisticated 880,000ft2 facility in Worksop. Everything about this DC that feeds the UK's DIY market is on a huge scale - 135,000 pallet positions in both high bay and low bay storage; 50,000 tote storage locations; 12,000 SKUs and some 88 million cases picked annually.

When the build project was originally discussed, the brief was limited to the storage of core products. But before the project went live this was revised to include both core products and seasonal goods, adding the challenge of spikes in demand.

This highlighted the third key lesson for us - always be ready to change and build in flexibility to any plan.

Each of the 170 pieces of handling equipment on site needed to work in coordination, which meant installing the right software to manage such a diverse range and quality of machines - while retaining the flexibility to handle changes in demand and throughput. However while the system is complex, the warehouse software needs to be sophisticated, not complicated.

Making a complex warehouse system work in harmony lies with the ability of the software to bring them all together into a single, integrated system. And in today's environment, that means real time monitoring and the ability to make and implement decisions at high speed.

So lesson four - the optimum solution, with the right management, control and lifetime support, should be more than the sum of its parts.

For clients as varied as Coca Cola and Tetra Pak, we have designed and installed software solutions able to manage conveyors, sorters, miniload cranes and other machines to make real-time decisions, helping clients to meet market needs quickly and efficiently.

Automation has had a chequered history in the UK, but companies who have got it right have seen enormous increases in productivity; and in today's tough times few business can afford to ignore the potential of automating at least some part of their storage and distribution facility.