As beverage companies adapt to an evolving marketplace, warehouses face increasing challenges that range from new shapes and sizes of products to SKU proliferation. With greater complexity in the products inside the warehouse, new technologies constantly emerge to restore order to the facility.

Warehouse technology companies have developed fully automated storage and retrieval systems that help minimize operator errors, while logistics companies have integrated systems with technology that responds to the sound of a user’s voice.

“I would say now, as the need for efficiency and cost savings is becoming ever more critical for businesses, they are searching for cost savings from automation,” says Laura Worker, marketing manager for Westfalia Technologies Inc., York, Pa. “Even if only starting with a warehouse management software, the pressure for sustainable cost savings is paramount to firms, especially in this recession.”

Westfalia offers complete automated material handling systems, which include both automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) and the company’s Savanna.NET warehouse management system (WMS), she says. Westfalia’s AS/RS products use one or more cranes in an aisle to store products single deep, double deep or up to 12 deep in a single storage lane with its Satellite rack entry vehicle, Worker says. The systems can be installed in low bay conventional warehouses as well.

In-feed conveyors push palletized products into the facility, and the pallet is picked up by the Satellite rack entry vehicle. Then, the product is placed on a storage retrieval machine, which will lift the pallet to the correct lane as instructed by the WMS. Westfalia’s Savanna.NET software will direct the storage retrieval machine to pick up the pallet when an order comes in, and the machine will take it to an out-feed conveyor. With an integrated picking system, the out-feed conveyor takes the pallet to the pick station, pick lane, or to be palletized as needed, she says.

“Often due to a facility’s specific SKU mix, we build systems with varying lane depths – say 1 or 2 deep on one side of the aisle, and 4 or 6 deep on the other side of the aisle,” Worker says. “These high-density AS/RS warehouse designs maximize storage density and minimize the building footprint.”

With Westfalia’s AS/RS, warehouses have the ability to build a two-aisle system with a middle block of storage that has varying lane depths. The system can be controlled by Westfalia’s Savanna.NET to adapt to changing SKU requirements, she says.

Savanna.NET features a modular design that allows both large and small companies to pick only the functions they need. The software has several standard functions, such as tracking inventory data; interfacing to the host enterprise resource planning system; managing storage locations, reports and scheduling re-warehousing; and pick lane replenishment. From there, warehouse managers can select additional functions, such as order picking, integration of both conventional and automated warehouses with the same software, and yard management. The ability to add functions as they become necessary makes the software ideal for smaller companies moving toward automation, Worker says.

“With financial pressures bearing down on companies of all sizes, the efficiency and financial benefits of a WMS become even more important and worth a second look,” she says. “Initially, people viewed WMS as only for big companies and requiring major automated systems investment, but with the modularity and flexibility of current WMS, these views are changing.”

The software, which supports both paper-based and paperless order picking technologies, has a tab styled grid-like format that makes filtering data easy for the user. The company also offers user training for all levels of users, she says.

Savanna.NET also can work with radio frequency terminals, scanners, printers and forklift trucks, and it can run SQL Server and Oracle database platforms.

One of the major trends for beverage companies has been a demand for building store-ready pallets, Worker says. To do so, Westfalia’s AS/RS system is used for storage, which then feeds full layer and mixed layer palletizing equipment. Savanna.NET integrates the storage retrieval machines, case and pallet conveyors, pallet check stations, Gantry robots for high-speed layer and mixed-layer order picking, manual order top off, stretch wrapping and sequencing for truck loading, she says.

Voice picking software
To help warehouses realize more operational efficiencies, Ryder System Inc., Miami, has developed voice picking technology that allows order pickers to communicate directly with a WMS without having to use a handheld scanning device or paper to track records, says Jim Norris, Ryder’s group logistics manager.

“Voice solutions are proven to be well-suited for high-volume and high SKU operations,” he says. “This is because voice picking technologies will yield the greatest benefit by increasing the picking speed and reducing the opportunities for error that can occur in a paper-based or scanning-based picking environment.”

Order pickers interact with the software via a headset with a microphone and a small, wireless computer on a waist belt. The system prompts the order picker, and the system receives the operator’s spoken information back.

In warehouses with high volumes of inventory and SKUs, more opportunities exist for improvements in picking accuracy and productivity as a result of integrating a voice picking system, Norris says.

“Voice picking seems to yield the greatest return on investment in warehousing scenarios where picking is done on a case or each [order] basis; where there are less than 10 cases picked per line; and where there is a high number of pickers per shift,” he says.

The major benefits to Ryder’s voice picking technology are increased productivity, improved handling and ease of use in a refrigerated environment, improved accuracy, cost-savings from reduced returns, and shortening of training time, he says.

“Order picking productivity can yield a double-digit percentage increase in productivity (depending on the system previously used) because the hands-free and eyes-free operation speeds up picking,” Norris says.

Picking accuracy is improved with a voice picking system through “check digits” or numbers assigned to picking locations. The check digits or number must be spoken into the system before picking can continue; if it is incorrect, the process is stopped, he says. BI