The automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) market is expected to reach $10.3 billion by 2027, according to a market research report by Meticulous Research. It’s important for food and beverage companies to know the benefits and challenges of implementing AS/RS, as well as to keep abreast of the newest technology available.
The benefits of using AS/RS in food and beverage manufacturing facilities is based on the efficiencies of space, labor and throughput that they gain. For instance, the ability to implement an AS/RS and save 70% to 90% of floor space (depending on clear height) is a tremendous value to most organizations, according to Ed Romaine, vice president of marketing and business development at Conveyco, a systems integrator.
Rick Dionne, automation sales engineer at Abel Womack, a solutions and support center for the warehouse solutions provider Raymond Corp., agrees. He says that by eliminating forklift trips down storage aisles and widely placed racking, AS/RS implementation can save storage and floor space and maximize storage utilization by using the full height of the warehouse and high-density, deep-lane racking.
When it comes to labor, not only will an AS/RS reduce by up to two-thirds the labor required for picking, but it also provides valuable social distancing, Romaine says. “The system naturally creates workstations, which allow operators to work at peak performance without the need to leave their station.” The elimination of walking and searching provides the productivity increase, labor reduction and social distancing many organizations are designing into their facilities.
“The benefits I mentioned are all vital,” Romaine adds, “but even more importantly is the return on investment (ROI). AS/RS when properly done, should provide a timely ROI, which helps increase the profitability and competitiveness that food and beverage companies are fighting for.”
Because food and beverage companies are moving toward fulfillment models such as direct-to-consumer, direct store delivery (DSD) and store ready shipments, the finished goods distribution process is becoming increasingly complex. Photo courtesy of Zebra Technologies
Mark F. Livesay, vice president of automated warehousing at ESI Group USA, a national design build firm specializing in the food and beverage industry, says that AS/RS also enables growth on the same site so land locked business will not have to relocate due to lack of space, and inventory accuracy ensures there is no lost or damaged product. In addition to the reduced labor requirement, he also notes reduced traumatic and repetitive injuries.
AS/RS also helps increase pallet throughput and visibility, Dionne says, which is especially important in time-sensitive food and beverage products and when perishable products need to move first in, first out, by allowing for very strict item tracking.
“AS/RS, like Raymond’s Radioshuttle, creates fewer opportunities for product damage due to the reduction in product touches,” says Dionne. “As larger storage spaces require even more cold-blasting, AS/RS can help to concentrate the footprint/square footage of a climate-controlled space, helping to reduce building and energy costs.”
Mark Wheeler, director of supply chain solutions at Zebra Technologies, adds, “As more food and beverage companies move toward fulfillment models—such as direct-to-consumer, direct store delivery (DSD) and store ready shipments—they are finding their finished goods distribution process becoming increasingly complex. Order windows are shrinking while the stock keeping unit (SKU) count continues to grow. AS/RS can offer these companies a productive, rapid order turn capability in a small space within an existing facility.”
Romaine says the biggest challenges facing AS/RS implementation depends on whether it is a greenfield (new) or brownfield (existing/upgrade) project. “Greenfield allows an organization to plan and create processes, procedures and equipment that match their business plan and market requirements. The greatest limitation is the rapidly escalating price of steel and plastic. With time, these increases will plateau and likely come back down, but today the costs are escalating.
Raymond Corp.’s Radioshuttle AS/RS allows for additional capacity and pallet positions while helping to store and pick products faster. Photo courtesy of Raymond Corp.
“In brownfield implementations, the greatest issue is having the space to implement a new system while still meeting each day’s demands,” Romaine says. To overcome this challenge, facilities can increase space by building expansions, mezzanines and remote operations, or by increasing capacity in other facilities while construction is taking place. “Very often, construction takes place on off shifts and weekends to minimize the impact of a facilities production requirements,” he says. He adds that utilizing autonomous mobile robot (AMR) systems in multiple applications around the facility can often free up valuable space for larger pallet AS/RS systems.
Livesay says the biggest challenge is getting decisions from management. “It is very important to get all the information up front. Everything starts from the ground up. A good geotechnical report helps in making some perhaps costly critical decisions, so the project can be deemed viable or not. A decision must be made on the type of automation that is required and which AS/RS supplier is the best fit with the companies’ long-term plans,” he says. “The owner must decide as to how much automation is required. The owner eventually comes to understand that trying to completely automate the picking system may not be a viable solution due to the inherent cost.”
Dionne says that AS/RS is best suited for operations that have regular, predictable and repetitive tasks. “If an operation varies widely in terms of product or materials handled from week to week or month to month may find it difficult to incorporate AS/RS or to see full benefits. Some additional challenges when implementing AS/RS include scheduling maintenance and that large initial upfront cost,” he adds.
Wheeler says that it is a challenge to select a provider that matches the strategic needs of the business in terms of capacity, peak throughput and the flexibility to adapt to changing operational needs over time. “There’s also the challenge of ancillary material handling processes needing to be in sync, both at the input and output. Unless this asset is highly utilized, the ROI will not materialize,” he says.
AS/RS technologies have changed dramatically over the last few years. According to Romaine, Conveyco progressed from crane and aisle systems to systems that combine shuttles, moles and autonomous mobile robot (AMR) technologies to provide three-dimensional AS/RS solutions. He says these solutions have the benefit of focusing their benefits on an organization’s exact blend of space savings, throughput and labor requirements.
The use of robotics, mini-load systems and multi-shuttles are being integrated so that the whole process is done internally to the AS/RS. Photo courtesy of NM Photos
“At Conveyco, we utilize a seven-step methodology called RightFIT to help evaluate, organize and direct our customers onto the correct automation path. Likewise the scalability that is available today is unprecedented in the material handling industry. You can utilize a large shuttle/mole/AMR system for the bulk of the operations, but AMR systems allow organizations to accomplish split case picking, material flow and consolidation for specialty lines, e-commerce orders, etc.,” Romaine says. “These AMR systems are so flexible that many can utilize existing rack and can be implemented rapidly to not impact production.”
Livesay says that automated retail order picking is becoming more and more commonplace. “We are seeing case picking being done in the freezer using either robotics, mini-load or multi-shuttle systems,” he says. The technology is not necessarily new but the whole process is being integrated so that it is done internally to the AS/RS.
“There are also layer pick systems previously located in a separate part of the facility, which required transporting the pallets via conveyors, fork trucks or AGVs. This resulted in delays in transporting product in and out of the different areas in the plant where perhaps the cold chain could be broken. Now the picking is done in the lower level of the reserve storage area incorporated within the racking. As a result, mixed pallets of products can be automatically built and then stored back in the AS/RS to be shipped out at a future time when it is required,” Livesay explains.
Dionne says that due to SKU proliferation and a limited availability of warehouse personnel, they also have seen a rise in automated VNA lift trucks that can change aisles. Additionally, robotic picking and palletization solutions utilizing vision guidance allow for mixed pallet buildings and layer picking.
“This technology once was considered nice to have, but is quickly becoming a must have as today’s workforce continues to find these types of jobs undesirable,” he notes. Pallet shuttle technology improves cube storage while utilizing AS/RS technology too. “The demand for need-it-now is creating a need for additional storage of the same high-volume SKUs, which works well in a high-density storage system. Goods-to-picker brings the product to the picker, allowing for less personnel while at the same time, allowing for better utilization of space. This can be done with many types of technologies, but the concept change will allow for a more efficient operation.” Another goods-to-picker concept is a mini-load system, which has the ability to have mixed case picking, Dionne says.
“Automated transfer carts allow for the movement of product without a fixed conveyor. They are more flexible, programmable and ultimately faster than the old, fixed conveyance systems,” he adds.
Wheeler says that, while solutions from long-standing providers remain important, there are a growing number of new offerings that leverage the innovative use of self-powered shuttles and AMRs. “Zebra Technologies has actually been actively investing in companies dedicated to developing AMRs to help warehouses modernize their operations, such as Locus Robotics and Plus One Robotics. We also recently announced that we’ve collaborated on a joint solution with Fetch Robotics that helps support collaborative picking. AMRs and other solutions in this space help provide a growing number of alternatives to address different operational profiles.”
Dionne notes that not all automation solutions are right for every facility. “Sometimes a simple piece of conveyor between two work areas is all the customer needs to be more efficient,” he says. “While another customer may need a robotic system with AGVs or automated lift trucks.” Reviewing the application is critical and understanding the process is key in designing a system that is right for each customer.
“Before jumping into automation, it’s important to take the time to visualize and analyze a facility,” he says. “By collecting and reviewing data, we can help operations identify optimizations that should be made prior to automation. In discovering these areas for optimization, we can then help create efficiencies in a facility. It’s important to ask a potential customer about their needs and work with them to provide the right solution to their current challenges—not necessarily just an automated one.”
Livesay says that with today’s work environment, labor is getting harder to find and staffing is proving to be a difficult process. “The AS/RS systems do not spread viruses, call in sick, show up under the influence, damage product and are 100% accurate.” Automation can also be implemented to increase efficiencies with existing labor force to decrease employees’ exposure to repetitive tasks and harsh environments, which in turn increase output and performance.
Romaine says that the implementation of WES software in addition to AS/RS systems is important. “The WES software orchestrates the facility to increase performance. A good WES will increase the equipment’s performance while reducing labor and increasing throughput.” He also points out that goals of industry standardization is always a good thing for the end users. (See MassRobotics sidebar.) “This makes competitive technologies easier to integrate and migrate to. The issue will be whether the largest players will participate (or when they will participate). Often the smaller players have the most to gain by standardization/commoditization while market leaders will often fight and resist until they have no choice (if they ever get there). I hope this standard is accepted and adopted by the industry.”
For more information:
ESI Group USA, www.esigroupusa.com
Mass Robotics, www.massrobotics.org
Raymond Corp., www.raymondcorp.com; Abel Womack, www.abelwomack.com
Zebra Technologies, www.zebra.com