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Automation of handling and storage is on the upsurge after a number of lean years. But there is a general trend away from huge, costly, high-bay warehouses to more flexible and smaller operations, often with sortation or cross-docking systems. After a steep decline in automation in the early 1990s, when orders almost halved, business has […]

Automation of handling and storage is on the upsurge after a number of lean years. But there is a general trend away from huge, costly, high-bay warehouses to more flexible and smaller operations, often with sortation or cross-docking systems.

After a steep decline in automation in the early 1990s, when orders almost halved, business has surged and the Automated Material Handling Systems Association (AMHSA) reports record levels.

The latest figures, for 1996, show orders for storage and retrieval systems, automated guided vehicles and unit load conveyors totalling more than £138m, well up on 1993’s £84.9m. Two of the leading suppliers, Morris Mechanical Handling and Mannesmann Demag, announced record sales.

Despite the upturn, AMHSA secretary John Malarkey says Britain still has a lot to do to catch up with other countries. Cranfield University consultancy Supply Chain Planning, which incorporates the former National Materials Handling Centre, estimates that the UK has only 200 automated warehouses whereas there are more than 1,000 in Germany and well over 5,000 in Japan.

Factors responsible for the situation in the UK include the lower cost of land, reducing the incentive for high-bay warehousing.

In any case, automation is not universally regarded as beneficial. Richard Taylor, Supply Chain Planning’s managing director, says it is not always appropriate: ‘The more you automate, the less flexible the system is.’

His warning reflects a trend for customers to require smaller quantities more quickly and frequently. ‘This doesn’t legislate for automation, but for flexibility,’ Taylor says.

Although automated storage and handling is still much less widespread than it is in mainland Europe, several industrial sectors have gone for automation in the past couple of years.

Morris is one of the companies most bullish about its growth in manufacturing industry. Its general sales manager, Duncan Ramsey, sees this expansion continuing, particularly if the social chapter is adopted and a minimum wage introduced, increasing the incentive to automate warehouses.

The car industry has been one of the leaders in automation, responding to growing pressure on delivery times and to minimise stocks with just-in-time systems. Several motor manufacturers have recently automated parts of their handling and storage systems.

Vauxhall’s investment in automated handling equipment at its Luton plant includes a £1m fully automated car-body store designed to increase Vectra output by up to 25%. Four Morris stacker cranes store and select car bodies according to instructions from the production management system, routing up to 120 an hour to trim and final rectification, body finesse work or special fittings. It can select any option for the production line.

In another development, power and free conveyors from Haden King are transporting Vectra body sides from a new robotic assembly line to the body-build area.

Other industries such as paper and printing, and food and drinks are embracing automation, while there have been some recent installations in distribution, including investments such as those by RS Components (see box).

Interest is being fostered by many firms building distribution centres in the Midlands’ ‘golden triangle’ where they find it difficult to recruit suitable labour, says Mannesmann Demag’s business development manager, Steve Knights.

Increased confidence in automated systems’ reliability has also encouraged firms to rely on a single distribution centre.

High-speed sorting systems are a key advance, according to AMHSA president Matthew Houston.

The use of cross-belt sorters linked with modern computer systems has removed limitations on systems’ throughputs.

Jungheinrich’s Special Projects manager, Steve Richmond, believes that in addition to the availability of increased computing power and more sophisticated software, increased exposure of business personnel to computers has helped to boost the spread of automation.

‘People are now used to having personal computers on their desks, which has opened up awareness to their potential,’ he says.

High-bay warehouses once tended to restrict pallets to a particular size and weight, but Knights now sees a trend towards smaller loads, with the use of plastic tote boxes and other reusable containers.

Large warehouses, such as RS Components’ new distribution centre, can now accommodate four tote box sizes.

The payback periods is rarely less than two years: it is three to five years for many projects, and can be up to 10 years for cold storage warehouses.

But attitudes towards the whole equation are beginning to change, with some in the industry suggesting that running costs be included in the calculation. Knights believes they should be, pointing to the low running costs of automated systems, which can mean investment is justified within about two years.

The general rule that automated systems can pay off only for large companies working three shifts is changing too.

While still predominantly adopted by large companies operating systems at least 16 hours a day, small firms, especially those handling compact, high-value products, are increasingly automating. The benefits are better control of stock and greater security.

This trend has been encouraged by greater awareness of semi-automation and increased diversity of products.

Some smaller firms are installing just a single automated crane or AGV, according to Richmond. It is increasingly common for flexibility to be built into designs, particularly allowing for expansion.

Complex software is no longer required. Standardised packages which link in with host computer systems are now generally supplied, slashing costs and cutting implementation times from as much as two years to as little as eight months.

Growth is set to continue, though it remains to be seen whether or not sales will follow the usual cyclical pattern.

But increased awareness of the potential for automation is encouraging: when one company in a sector leads the way, the others then perceive that they cannot afford not to follow suit.

Speed is the essence

High-speed sortation is key to the latest warehouse technology featuring in the second stage of RS Components’ £60m distribution centre in Nuneaton. Housing an inventory of around 100,000 lines of electronic and electrical components and tools, it can despatch up to 25,000 orders a day.

A Mannesmann Dematic installation, this 26,000m2 development was built alongside an earlier warehouse of similar size for large palletised goods. The new building is dedicated to small parts handling.

High-performance sortation is based on a system of high-speed cross belt sorters which are used as ‘hobs’ linking functional areas in the warehouse. This replaces the traditional use of sorters for directing picked goods into the appropriate dispatch lanes.

‘The sorters enable us to localise the very complex high-speed elements of the system in just three areas,’ says Ian Bell, outbound manager of general products. ‘In other areas, where personnel work, we are able to use less complex, relatively slow conveyors.’

The storage is in a high-bay warehouse containing 20 fully automated narrow-aisle storage and retrieval machines serving 100m aisles. It accommodates four tote box sizes.

Coping with variables

Panasonic Logistics’ new 25,000m2 Northampton distribution centre, a fully automated warehouse, replaces two other facilities and provides for future expansion. The firm handles all operating logistics for Panasonic’s consumer products and business equipment, as well as dealers’ spares.

Daily performance requirements include the receipt of 1,000 pallets and 5,000 cartons, and the ability to ship more than 700 pallets and 18,000 cartons. Some require rapid delivery and despatch, while others may be held in store.

The system has gone for a variety of high-bay pallet racking to horizontal carousels, to cope with 65,000 part numbers of varying size, shape and demand levels.

Morris, which masterminded the installation, suggested modifications to the original design, using a 106mm ‘top hat’ support together with Dexion double-deep racking throughout, which added another pallet level to each bay. There are now five cranes rather than seven. Equipment costs were cut by £500,000. Accommodating 22,880 stored pallets, it left over 2,000m2 of space free.

Conveyors serve all three floors, with a slat shoe sorter directing cartons or totes to the ground floor for delivery.