Food Engineering

Spirited DC gets an automation upgrade

January 1, 2009
High-tech material handling system picks orders and moves product quickly with minimal breakage.

The command center at Southern Wine and Spirits of America, Inc. manages the automated material handling system from Dematic. Source: Dematic.


With 18 distribution centers (DCs) in the US, Southern Wine and Spirits of America, Inc. has embarked on a major upgrade of its DCs, integrating high-tech material-handling systems to streamline production. After converting two of its DCs into a new generation automated format, last year the company finished its third and biggest DC, a 650,000 sq.-ft. facility in Lakeland, FL.

At the center of this DC’s material handling strength is a high-speed sortation and conveying system, enabling the facility to handle 12,000 beverage SKUs and moving 7,000 split cases per hour, a major improvement over older, manual methods.

“The decision to expand our DCs was driven by our volume growth; we have grown 10% in 2006,” and about 20% in 2007, says Bobby Burg, senior VP of supply chain strategy for Southern. “As in many other industries there is consolidation occurring, meaning fewer and fewer wholesalers. Much of our growth is coming through consolidation.” Burg adds, “Our distribution centers are growing because of our strategy to consolidate our investments into fewer facilities, while making them more efficient and productive.”

Many customers of this operation prefer to split cases, which places an extra demand on the conveying and sortation systems. Southern used Dematic for its material handling solutions in the past and decided to use the supplier for this operation as well. 

The 7,000 feet of conveyers in the DC are capable of moving product at a rate of 500 feet-per-minute, which is fast for this industry considering the product is almost all glass. The facility uses roller accumulation conveyers with two-inch rollers to minimize gaps, which keeps product breakage at a minimum (0.75%, half of typical industry rates). Southern’s cases weigh an average of 35 to 40 pounds.

The slug merge system controls the staging and release of cartons into the high-speed sorter, increasing system throughput and eliminating bottlenecks. The merge evens out differentials from multiple pick areas and optimizes batch cycling. The cases are scanned upstream on the conveyer and then released into the merge without gaps.

The new sliding shoe sortation system has had a direct impact on the picking process. “In the old paper process when we were reading a sheet of paper to put a case on the line, we would shoot for maybe 180 cases per-man-hour for a good picker,” says Burg. “Now, our minimum on a pick line is 250 cases per man-hour, a 40 percent productivity increase.”

The sorter is capable of handling a product volume of 10,000 cases an hour, and an additional 12,000 bottles in split cases per hour. Before, the company averaged about 150 cases per-man-hour for the entire DC; now it is handling 225 cases per-man-hour. In terms of shipping accuracy Southern was averaging one percent error out the door, now it averages 0.2 percent error, a 60 percent reduction.

A five-sided scan tunnel at the end of the sorter provides for the verification of all the SCC codes (source classification code) to the shipping links. This point-camera technology reads bar codes on the cases, and compares it to the shipping labels, assuring customers they get what they ordered. 

For more information: John P. Clark, 616-913-7287, john.p.clark@dematic.com