Manual handling…in the cold

Industrial Automation Ltd has helped 3663 First for Foodservice solve a materials handling problem at its two Regional Distribution Centres at Royton and Banbury by inventing a machine that transfers a pallet-full of trays on to a set of dolleys. The machine was needed for a particular contract handling fresh chicken for KFC. KFC has been so impressed with 3663’s approach to the contract and in particular the innovations that were being implemented (of which the new machine is part) that it awarded 3663 ‘Best New Supplier’ early in 2006.  The particular challenge for IAL was that the machines are operating in a chilled part of the RDC where temperatures are kept between –2oC and +2oC; this presents problems with condensation and the performance of lubricants for moving parts.


In 2004, 3663 won the contract for KFC which includes the movement of fresh chicken to the RDCs in 1.5kg trays containing a minimum of 25kg of chicken. Each tray can potentially weigh up to 30kg, which is in excess of the 25kg that regulations recommend as a maximum weight for manual handling. The contract involves each RDC handling between 2,000 and 3,500 trays a day, which are transported on wooden pallets. They will then be de-palletised onto dolleys in stacks of six. Most of KFC’s restaurants take delivery of several stacks of six trays on dolleys, but need the flexibility to take part stacks of less than six. This contract would require eight 3663 RDC staff to perform the operation over the course of an 8.5 hour shift.


The contract was due to begin in February 2005, so in April 2004, Phil Oliver, Supply Chain Manager worked with 3663’s Health & Safety team to carry out a risk assessment on the procedure. They decided that manual handling was not appropriate and sought to automate the process of transferring the stacks from pallets to dolleys. Not only would this optimise productivity, but it would reduce the risk of injury to staff from stooping, lifting and turning. He investigated two feasible options: to automatically pick 100% of the trays, or to have 80% automated with 20% handled manually. After performing a cost-benefit analysis, Phil estimated that the 100% option would be four times the cost as well as exposing 3663 to greater risk if a machine were to break down, because they would have no manual capacity in place.


Phil contacted Industrial Automation Ltd because of their experience in bespoke automation solutions – particularly in the food processing sector. Not only did Phil require a machine that was capable of quickly and efficiently transferring the produce trays, there were additional constraints with regard to the floorspace available and he also sought a payback time of two years. In order to achieve the productivity levels, the machine would need to complete each cycle in two minutes. No existing machinery was capable of performing the task – particularly due to the low temperatures involved.


Over the course of six months, IAL developed a machine in which a pallet load of 30 trays is driven into one end of the machine; at the other end of the machine, five dolleys are put into position and kept in place by a metal bar. The trays are lifted and the pallet is pushed out of the way, before the five dolleys are brought into place. This movement takes just 60 seconds with the total transfer taking less than two minutes and is carried out by just two operatives. Part of the development involved IAL re-designing the dolleys, which are made by JR Trolleys of Cranfield in order to centralise the trays on the dolleys to ensure stability of the stack. There are light guards on the entry and exit as well as perimeter guarding around the rest of the machine, to prevent injury to operatives.


Phil sums up, “IAL have come up with a unique machine – we have the only two of its kind in the world at present; it has met and exceeded our expectations.”



3663 First for Foodservice is the UK’s leading foodservice wholesale distributor. The business offers a range of services to the whole industry and deliver quality ambient, grocery, frozen, fresh, chilled and non-food items to approximately 30,000 customers in the catering industry.


Industrial Automation Ltd is a specialist designer and manufacturer of automation systems for industry. They have extensive experience in producing bespoke and turnkey solutions in which there is no existing automation solution.



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