Beverage manufacturers and distributors are faced with an increasingly complex work environment due to SKU proliferation, more complicated product orders, more demanding expectations for order accuracy and the need to increase efficiency to help with the bottom line. Automation technology has become an invaluable tool for many warehouse operators, even if it’s just semi-automated systems, by cutting labor, increasing pick speeds and accuracy and boosting the overall efficiency of day-to-day operations. Here is a review of some of the automated solutions beverage warehouse operators are investing in to keep things moving smoothly.
1. Case Picking
There are a wide variety of order picking technologies available today that companies can invest in to improve the productivity and accuracy of their warehouse order picking function. Although certain systems like voice-directed picking and pick to light still rely on order pickers manually picking the products, the use of headsets, radio frequency handheld devices and visual RF scanning technologies allows for a “hands-free” operation and makes for a more high-tech process.
Explains Chet Willey, a consultant and owner of Chet Willey Associates: “The majority of automation investments I’m seeing aren’t for heavy automation. I’m seeing more investments in things like voice pick. There’s a whole movement across distributors toward voice pick and they are seeing 15 to 30 percent improvements in productivity. When you can invest a relatively small amount, a couple of hundred thousand dollars versus $4 to $8 million dollars for a heavy automation system, it’s the best payoff out there for people that want to improve productivity.”
And, upgrading from manual picking to picking by voice is a good option for lower-volume warehouses or warehouses that require a “man-to-goods” operation.
Dematic offers a number of full case picking and split case picking solutions. Dematic’s solutions are designed to increase pick productivity and accuracy. For instance, the company introduced a LaserTrucks+ solution that combines laser guided pallet trucks with a voice-directed pick system.
Westfalia Technologies also supplies integrated order picking systems, including systems like pick-to-belt that can be integrated within the rack structure for high volume case picking.
According to Dan Labell, president and owner of Westfalia Technologies, case picking is often the most labor-intensive task in a warehouse and he says he is seeing increased demand for efficient picking systems that allow workers to pick less than full pallets while at the same time, the systems are integrated with reserved storage in the warehouse.
Jupiter, Fla.-based J.J. Taylor was one of the first beer wholesalers to install an automated case picking system in its Tampa facility and has reaped the benefits. The wholesaler chose ITW Warehouse Automation’s Vertique case-picking solution, which specializes in mixed-case picking and offers a great deal of scalability. The original system was designed to accommodate as many as 275 SKUS and today the Vertique system supports J.J. Taylor’s more than 1,200 SKUs. And, according to J.J. Taylor, the Vertique system picks cases at an accuracy rate of 99.98 percent.
System Logistics’ newest picking system is its Automatic Pick to Pallet System (APPS) solution. The company says this solution is ideal for beverage customers who wish to automate their logistics picking processes characterized by applications with up to 1,000 SKUs and a high number of orders requiring three to four SKUs per mixed order pallet with picks per line count in the six to 10 range. In the APPS system, the management of the single case is performed by an anthropomorphic robot equipped with a sophisticated vision system that performs all the handling and manipulation of different cases, taking them directly from the source pallet to the custom-mixed order pallet.
2. Layer Picking
By automating the layer picking process, warehouse operators can efficiently pick fast-moving SKUs by picking full layers of product at a time.
Cascade Corp.’s Layer Picker solutions add speed and versatility to the picking process. According to the company, one forklift operator can fill orders at an average speed of 1,250 cases an hour compared to 250 cases an hour manually as the Layer Picker streamlines the picking process and increases the speed of pallet production without adding labor.
One low-level automated solution is Tygard Machine and Manufacturing Company’s Tygard Claw layer-picking forklift attachment. The Claw easily attaches to any brand forklift and can improve distribution order fulfillment operations by improving productivity, decreasing labor and increasing accuracy, the company says.
“More and more, I’m seeing people getting into investing in layer picking, rather than handle high volume cases by hand,” Willey says. “And if there’s a significant volume of cases throughout the month, sometimes it can justify a layer picker. A layer picker is only $70,000 and that’s including the forklift and the attachment and it might be able to save three people productivity-wise. Most people, after about six months, are averaging close to 1,500 cases an hour, versus 150 to 200 cases per hand, so if you can do 10 times as much work with this piece of equipment for those high volume items, then it pays off rather quickly.”
3. Stretch Wrappers
Automatic stretch wrappers are one area that could reap big rewards for smaller and medium-sized distributors looking to make more reasonable investments in automation.
For an investment of $85,000 to $200,000, as opposed to several millions of dollars, automatic stretch wrappers often require no operator as the pallet loads are brought to the machine via conveyor. Willey says the utilization of automated stretch wrappers can dramatically increase productivity for warehouse operations that exceed 5 million cases per year. “With automated stretch wrappers, that worker that used to manually wrap the pallets is now freed up to do other tasks in the warehouse,” he points out.
Lantech markets a number of stretch wrapper machines including turntables, straddles, ring straddles and its Lan-Ringer horizontal wrapping machine, which is custom built for heavy loads that require high wrap force.
When MillerCoors distributor Andrews Distributing opened up its new 300,000-square-foot Allen, Texas warehouse in 2012, the company invested in a number of technology tools, including two new Lantech automatic stretch wrapping machines. The Lantech machines load or unload pallets three at a time and wrap in less than 60 seconds.
Some equipment manufacturers combine palletizers and stretch wrappers to maximize warehouse efficiency. For instance, ARPAC designed its ARBOT Palletizer and Stretch Wrapper as an efficient end-of-the-line solution for handling cases. The Automatic Robotic Palletizer can handle products, forming desired pattern layer stacks onto a pallet in a tight, uniform configuration. And, the ARBOT palletizer can be integrated with an ARPAC automatic PAC stretch wrapper. ARPAC also recently unveiled its automatic Electro-Wrap EWA rotary tower stretch wrapper.
4. Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems
Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are another technology that distributors are investing in to meet increased demand for mixed pallet deliveries and to contend with more SKUs. AS/RS systems also are a good investment for warehouse operators that are trying to utilize existing warehouse space as an AS/RS can store high volumes of product at the highest density possible per warehouse square foot.
So, instead of building new warehouse space, AS/RS systems help to “densify” existing space by going up or by going deep.
Westfalia Technologies specializes in AS/RS systems, especially high-density storage systems. Westfalia’s AS/RS systems feature Storage and Retrieval Machines (S/RM) using Satellite technology for multiple deep systems, anywhere from 3 to 18 deep pallet storage. The company also offers single-deep systems using Telescopic Fork load extraction devices or double-deep systems using Satellite or Fork-style load handling devices. The AS/RS systems can enable a multiple deep configuration without numerous aisles, so it’s the best utilization of space.
When spirits distributor Wirtz Beverage built a new facility in Cicero, Illinois, the company decided to install a Westfalia AS/RS system. The high-density storage system provides Wirtz with the ability to store up to 10 pallets deep while maintaining a balance of inventory and movements across the system. The 42-foot tall building is equipped with five high storage racks with three tandem S/RMs. Using Satellite technology, storing and retrieving loads in Wirtz Beverage’s high density configuration significantly increases storage capacity and reduces the footprint of the system.
ITW Warehouse Automation’s StorFast cart-based, ultra high-density, AS/RS solution is another option for warehouse operators looking to invest in automation. The StorFast cart-based AS/RS maximizes storage capacity with higher density and throughput than traditional crane-based systems, the company says. And, StorFast designs are modular and can be easily expanded as capacity requirements and SKUs increase.
5. Automated Guided Vehicles
Many beverage distributors are finding automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and laser-guided vehicles (LGVs) as a cost effective way to move pallets through a facility. Besides reducing labor, as AGVs are guided by laser, vision or magnetic tape systems, the vehicles also can help boost productivity, improve product handling and increase safety while reducing costs and product damage.
PepsiCo uses 11 laser-guided AGVs manufactured by JBT Corp. in its Lithia Springs, Ga. facility. The AGVs operate 24/7 and facilitate movement of finished product between 10 stretch wrappers at the production lines, nine truck bays, two bridge conveyors and a floor storage location. The vehicles are controlled by SGV Manager Software, which communicates with WMS software and plant PLCs to efficiently move pallets of finished products. Thanks to the use of the AGVs, the PepsiCo facility has significantly reduced pallet and product damage while ensuring safe, reliable delivery of pallets. And the AGVs are flexible to keep up with the plant’s changing production demands.
Dematic also offers a complete line of AGVs including high reach counterbalance forked AGVs and for horizontal transportation, the company markets pallet truck, counterbalance forked, unit load and tugger AGVs. Dematic’s Flex Series of AGVs provide integrated automated guided vehicle solutions including WMS, AGV control systems, picking systems, charging systems and other automated material handling applications.