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Robot joins picking line-up

04 July 2017

Pharmaceutical wholesaler, Novaltia, recently added further automation – including a robotic picking system – to the warehouse solution supplied by KNAPP.

At its 18,500m2 distribution centre (DC) in Zaragoza, Novaltia operates two shifts, seven days a week, shipping up to 120,000 items a day. All four of its DCs feature automated handling systems and together supply 1,000 pharmacies with up to five deliveries per day. With 185 employees, Novaltia takes pride in its high levels of efficiency, with annual operating costs amounting to less than 3 per cent of its turnover of 300 million euros in 2015. Little wonder, then, that the firm has won the Pilot Award for Logistics Excellence.

Novaltia has worked with automation provider, KNAPP, since 1999. In 2008, its Zaragoza DC underwent a large-scale extension and modernisation programme. Carried out during ongoing warehouse operations – without daily business being compromised – the project included the addition of an OSR Shuttle store and a universal software solution, KiSoft. In this way, end-to-end control of the warehouse processes was provided, with automatic generation of replenishment and transport orders and quality assured through intelligent and system-guided processes. As a result, Novaltia was able to handle increased throughput with the same number of employees.

A variety of picking methods

Most of the assortment at Zaragoza is stored in the OSR Shuttle – which supplies the goods-to-person workstations – and the automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS), which replenishes the central belt picking system and the manual picking area. KNAPP’s KiSoft software plans all the order picking and controls the various fulfilment systems. The central belt system consists of four A-frame autopickers that are connected in series and feature different ejector types to cater for various product types. This system takes care of the picking of fast- and medium-moving articles. Meanwhile, medium- and slow-movers are stored in the OSR Shuttle system and supplied to one of two ergonomically designed ‘Pick-it-Easy Health’ workstations that feature pick-to-light technology. Oversized and fragile items, meanwhile, are either picked at manual workstations or directly from pallets with the aid of RF terminals. Homeopathic articles are picked from a vertical carousel that provides fast access to goods in 3,200 locations. The various warehouse areas are connected by a high-performance conveyor system.

Urgent orders

In addition to these main fulfilment areas, certain orders are handled in special ways. For example, transfer orders – those with few order lines but large quantities – are processed at a dedicated workstation in the AS/RS area using RF terminals, while full cases and bulky products are picked-to-belt. Cold-storage products (those kept at 2-8°C) are picked to separate cool containers using RF terminals, with data loggers used to monitor temperature during delivery. In addition, time-critical orders from pharmacies can be fast-tracked, with KiSoft ensuring that they are started promptly and picked quickly using RF terminals; these urgent orders are often picked up by taxi within minutes.

Visualisation software

KNAPP also supplied its visualisation software package, KiSoft i-POINT, which enables Novaltia to monitor, operate and switch on or off the entire warehouse or its component areas using graphical displays. Eight years on from the modernisation project, Novaltia has recently enhanced the automated solution at its Zaragoza DC with the addition of three new KNAPP technologies: Pick-it-Easy Robot, KNAPP-Store and Open Shuttles.

Robotic picking

The Pick-it-Easy Robot solution is fed by the OSR Shuttle store. It uses KNAPP’s KiSoft Vision image recognition technology to identify the optimum article to pick from a tote and calculate the ideal grip point for the robot. Combining flexibility, reliability and performance, the robot is able to maintain a consistently high throughput rate and accuracy level over long periods in the picking of slow- to medium-moving articles.

Handling returns

KNAPP-Store is a robotic storage and picking solution based on an AS/RS concept. Modular in design, it features rail-mounted storage robots that are like mini cranes. Goods are not stored in bins but multi-deep directly on glass shelves. On entry to the system, products are scanned from six sides – capturing key data such as expiry date and lot number – and then automatically stored.

“Each type of article is allocated a storage and picking strategy. This permits us to achieve a degree of automation greater than 95%.”

Products of various shapes and sizes are picked using a system of two grippers that can move independently of each other. Novaltia is using KNAPP-Store for returns, slow-moving products and articles that are subject to stringent legal regulations, such as narcotics. Once loaded into the KNAPP-Store, the articles are immediately available for picking.

Open Shuttle transport

Novaltia has also taken delivery of an Open Shuttle, one of KNAPP’s intelligent and free-roaming automated guided vehicles. Open Shuttles manoeuvre through the warehouse without optical or physical aids, reacting dynamically to obstacles and planning alternative routes. The Open Shuttle at Novaltia is used to transport returns to the KNAPP-Store, thereby flexibly linking the storage areas.

Quality assurance

In a final checking process, the contents of picked totes are verified semi-automatically with the aid of a check station. If an error is detected or there are any missing articles, the operator triggers a re-picking order and these items are picked using RF terminals and transferred to the final check station, where they are placed into the target container. After fully automatic insertion of delivery notes, lidding and strapping, the totes are distributed among the 720 dispatch ramps, according to the allocated delivery routes. A further 12 dispatch ramps are available for bulky orders of full cases.

Automation means speed

With efficient, automated storage and picking, the average order processing time at the Zaragoza DC is just 15 minutes and the delivery time for orders is between 30 and 180 minutes. The secret of this success is selection of the optimum picking technology for each of the 33,000 articles in Novaltia’s product range. Explains Fernando Castillo, Novaltia’s CEO, “Each type of article is allocated a storage and picking strategy. This permits us to achieve a degree of automation greater than 95%.” In this way, Novaltia uses the ideal picking method for each product, with the KiSoft ‘brain’ integrating all the high-performance elements. “The combination of all these KNAPP technologies enables Novaltia to be one of the most efficient companies in the sector,” adds Fernando Castillo.