It’s time to take a fresh look at automated material handling

In the past, companies experiencing growth often turned towards building a new facility, or expanding their existing facility to help accommodate additional inventory. However, during the past three to four years, financial and economic disruptions have forced companies to be much more cautious with capital expenditures, and have forced them to look at things more subjectively.

It is for that reason most companies now ask, “How can I grow and expand my business utilizing my current facility?” and “How can I increase production with less cost?” To help answer these questions, more and more companies are considering automation as a practical solution.

During the last 30 years automated warehousing has evolved from massive vendor-driven designs in very specialized, fully-automated structures to more of a commodity approach involving conventional structures. No longer do companies have to build a new highly specialized building for a single vendor’s proprietary automated system.

A number of warehouse operators are turning to mini mechanized systems with automated storage and retrieval system (AS/ RS) replenishment. These systems may be used as stand-alone units, or implemented with existing pick-to-pallet jacks, pick-tobelt or pick-to-tote solutions. These hybrid systems also can work for almost any type of company that handles food including grocery and foodservice operators, public refrigerated warehouses or food processors. Recent trends also have shown companies looking for help with their “slow movers.” Since slow movers proliferate and inundate the typical warehouse, most facilities want access to all kinds of specialty products (only in small amounts) — but still want them delivered with their regular deliveries at little or no extra cost.

ESI recently helped a southwestern convenience store company automate a distribution center. In this instance, ESI designed a multi-level system with an AS/RS crane for pick-to-belt and pick-to-pallet activities within the same module.

This approach allows the operator to combine fast movers and slow movers in the same system — further amortizing the cost of the automated system by doing replenishment with the automated crane for fast movers. It also allows the owner to maximize overhead clearance in its existing facility.

This system has reduced forklift labor by 90 percent, and improved sortation and queuing for pick-to-belt items, which will result in a 30 percent increase in order selection and order consolidation productivity.

The system has been designed with the ability to migrate into fully automated selection of up to 80 percent of the total master case throughput of the facility. This process will be an add-on that capitalizes on the newly installed AS/RS conveyor and sortation infrastructure.

Labor savings, improved selection accuracy, ease of integration and related operating requirements make these systems a great choice in helping companies be much more competitive in the marketplace.

Even so, not every building is designed for automation or even needs automation. Facility owners need an expert — not affiliated with an automation vendor — to examine each case.

This way, ESI can provide its customers with an unbiased value of automation to their individual operation. Our experts can help facility owners select systems that represent a correct “fit.” If you haven’t looked closely into the automated material handling market, its time to do so.

By Steve King

Steve King is a regional vice president for ESI Constructors, Inc. King has more than 30 years project management, design and construction experience in the food industry.