Logistics: Warehouse storage systems go high-tech
Most beverage companies look to high-tech solutions for their filling and packaging lines, but storage solution providers say companies also are taking a similar approach to their warehousing needs. Whether it is to accommodate changes in products or packaging, or make more efficient use of existing square footage, warehouse storage is getting a technology upgrade.
Juergen Conrad, director of sales for Westfalia Technologies, York, Pa., says an explosion in the number of beverage SKUs during the past several years has challenged warehouse personnel to organize more inventory. In addition, it can mean moving product more frequently, which wastes time and potentially damages cases. His company offers automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), which have been popular abroad and are gaining acceptance in the United States as well.
“With an AS/RS technology, the advantages [beverage companies] see is they are much better organized,” Conrad says.
The company offers a range of automation options from the DeepLane Pallet Flow/Gravity Flow system to a fully automated Unit Load/Mini-Load AS/RS. High-density storage allows companies to store more product in a smaller space by using vertical space as well as horizontal. Pallets can be organized on a first-in, first-out basis to ensure product freshness.
“Because of the higher density and less wasted space we have between the pallets, we are able to get more storage capacity to a certain cubic feet because we have less unused space,” Conrad says.
In addition, the higher density saves energy in cooler or freezer areas because less air needs to be cooled around the products. One Westfalia customer realized a 40 percent savings in energy costs, he says.
“So you have energy savings, you have footprint savings, you have building and construction savings, and these are the most critical on the physics of the building site,” Conrad adds.
The addition of software such as the Savanna.Net Warehouse Management Software (WMS) Westfalia uses with its AS/RS systems means companies can have multiple-deep storage without sacrificing flexibility. The software tracks product flow throughout the facility, reports inventory levels and assists with order-picking and can be used for manual-operated warehouse areas. Savanna is designed for both conventional and automated warehouses in the same WMS.
The best storage solutions come from viewing the warehouse as part of the complete supply chain, Conrad advises. Organizing the warehouse ties into both how products are palletized and delivered from production, and how they are shipped from the plant.
If storage is seen as part of the complete cycle, Conrad says, “We can really organize and get the pallets out in a certain sequence, exactly in time and stage them when the truck is at the door.”
Dematic Corp., Grand Rapids, Mich., also is finding increased use of AS/RS technology in beverage warehouses, says Christopher Kina, corporate business development manager. The company’s Multishuttle is one of its most flexible solutions for beverage operations. The system is modular and scalable, and consists of a series of powered shuttle cars to transport product.
“It’s very flexible so you can put it into an existing building that doesn’t have the most optimal footprint and be able to design the system to fit within the confines of the existing facility,” Kina says.
In addition, Multishuttle uses less power than a conventional system, he says. “We’ve always incorporated power reduction as part of the design of our systems,” Kina explains. “For the Multishuttle, the simplicity of the modular shuttles allows for system redundancy and low power consumption. The shuttle is very light and can be switched in less than three minutes. It also allows for manual access to the aisles, so in case there is ever a power failure, you can still get to your products.”
Operator ergonomics are another area of concern when it comes to beverage storage systems, Kina says. He sees a trend toward, “reducing the number of touches on cases and the ergonomics of your automation.” Storage solutions that can incorporate voice technology, for example, on either receiving or order picking increase productivity and accuracy, and reduce injury, he says.
While beverage warehouses are handling an ever-increasing number of their own SKUs, they also are dealing with retailer demands for mixed pallets.
“This trend is really reducing the amount of full-pallet or single-layer orders that they get, and going to more mixed case picking than in the past,” Kina says.
Boston Rack’s International and Strategic Account Manager Alex Huitron and Beverage Specialist John Chauncey have seen similar demands for flexibility among their beverage clients.
Chauncey says analyzing a warehouse’s inventory is critical to deciding which system to use, as is evaluating a facility’s current and future square footage, and whether or not it is most often moving full pallets, cases or even individual bottles.
“In the beverage industry, when you start laying out warehouses and picking operations, it’s much different than other industries,” he says. “You have to understand the picking requirements that they have â€” that’s different for soda than it is for beer and it is for wine and liquor.”
Beer and soft drink orders, for example, often require full pallets or cases, where wine and liquor warehouses might be picking individual bottles or smaller numbers of cases.
For beverage operations, the North Easton, Mass.-based company offers the Push Back system for high-density storage that also provides selectivity. The company recommends the Push Back pallet rack for operations that have multiple SKUs and multiple pallets of each SKU.
“Push Back gives you the flexibility of having the highest number of SKUs,” Huitron says. “It gives you a wide variety of product and high selectivity.”
In addition to the Push Back system, the Selective Rack and the Carton Flow systems can be useful in beverage operations. The Selective Rack system is designed for immediate access to all pallets, and is easily re-configurable. Case Flow is designed for high-volume, fast-moving SKUs in an order-picking environment. The company says the rack rollers are set at a slight pitch to gently carry product to the order-picker rather than making the order-picker reach for product. Case Flow is set up as a first-in, first-out inventory rotation. Like Selective Rack, the Case Flow system can be re-configured as business needs change.
Another industrywide change that has affected warehouse storage systems is the trend toward lightweight bottles. While the packaging change benefits the environment and saves material costs, it presents warehouse operators with a stacking challenge.
“One of the major changes going on right now is that the bottles are being fabricated with a much thinner material,” Huitron says. “Where, in the past, these companies were able to double stack a pallet, now they can’t because the bottles will not hold the weight of the pallet above.”
That means using more racks or more floor space for storage, he says.
No single solution
Gary Zimmer, president of Twinlode, South Bend, Ind., says he also has seen beverage warehouses challenged by lightweight bottles, and says, “Everybody is trying to stay lean and get as much density as they can and utilize that cube. In the past they’ve been able to double or triple stack. Now they can’t because of the strength of the bottle. They’re starting to see a lack of cube utilization, so that’s why they’re trying to look at different types of racking systems.”
To help maximize available space, Twinlode offers double- and single-pallet solutions. The company’s most popular storage solution in the beverage market is the Double-Wide Pallet System that handles two pallets at a time.
“It’s double your throughput and increases your productivity, which goes right to the balance sheet,” Zimmer says.
According to the company, side-by-side pallet handling stabilizes the load and improves efficiency and safety. The company offers both a Drive In System that picks from the same side for last-in, first-out inventory retrieval, or the Drive Through System that loads and picks from both sides for first-in, first-out retrieval on more time-sensitive products.
To accommodate the full range of picking needs, the company also offers the Pallet Flow Double and Single Pallet Storage system, which offers first-in, first-out inventory retrieval.
Like most storage system experts, Zimmer feels it is necessary to examine a warehouse’s SKUs and specific geography before selecting a system.
“There’s no one cookie-cutter,” he says. “It’s all about sales, and it’s driven by sales demand.”
The current economic climate, he says, has only made that type of analysis more critical. “The return on investment has gotten tougher and will be tougher because the payback has got to be quicker. There’s no ‘if’ it will pay itself back, it has to pay itself back because of the cost of money.” BI