Automated systems: Storage solutions of the future

by FM Media
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Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are revolutionising commercial storage spaces in warehousing, distribution and countless other applications – from libraries to defence establishments and manufacturing plants. ROBERT MEADE from Webb Australia explains the latest technologies and their efficiencies.

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Making a warehousing and distribution operation more efficient is all about improving the efficiency with which you manipulate both products and data. The basics of good logistics can be characterised as follows:

  • the efficient manipulation of products is all about minimising the distances your team members have to travel to handle those products and the number of times they have to handle them; and
  • the efficient manipulation of data is all about doing as much manipulation of the data as possible relating to your products within your computer system before it gets to your team members, rather than relying on those team members to physically manipulate the products.

Much time and effort is spent on configuring warehouses and distribution centres to optimise operating efficiency. Methods used may include some of the following:

  • employ forklifts with smaller turning circles to reduce the widths of the pallet racking aisles;
  • install higher pallet racking to condense the size of your warehouse or distribution centre (DC) and reduce its overall footprint;
  • structure the location of your products within the warehouse or distribution centre (DC) so that the most frequently accessed or sold products are closest to the centre of operations, and the least frequently accessed products are furthest away, thus reducing the distances travelled by your team members in the manipulation of your products..

But if you have already done the above and need an even tighter, more efficient operation, then how do you take the next step? Install an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS), as such systems make it possible to significantly reduce the footprint of the shelving and pallet racking required to store the products in your warehouse and DC, while dramatically reducing the labour required to manipulate the products.
An AS/RS can provide versatile material handling solutions for factory automation as well as warehouses and distribution centres. Designed to be at the centre of an integrated material handling system, an AS/RS delivers the speed and efficiency required for today’s supply chain management (SCM) environment. A high-quality AS/RS helps reduce errors, streamline processes, decrease cycle times, recapture floor space, and improve productivity.
To help you understand how an AS/RS works, consider it as a self-contained module within your warehouse or DC that is responsible for the highly efficient storage and retrieval of your products. It consists of a dedicated storage and retrieval machine (SRM) that runs on two rails within each aisle of the module’s racking, with one rail located on the floor and the other rail suspended between the racking at the top of the aisle, and with both rails being near the centre of the aisle. Located on either side of the SRM are the customised shelves or racking for the storage of your products. The SRM automatically stores and retrieves your products within the shelving or racking of the AS/RS.
As the AS/RS is an enclosed environment into which your team members cannot venture, product access is via either individual ‘pick up and deposit’ (P&D) stations dedicated to each aisle, or via just one or two P&D stations at the front connecting to the AS/RS through either a dedicated conveyor system or a dedicated shuttle car system. The whole AS/RS is controlled by a centralised control system that is integrated with and controlled by your warehouse management system (WMS).
However, an AS/RS has advantages in not being restricted by many of the physical limitations of a normal warehouse or DC operation, especially if you are designing a new warehouse from the ground up. These advantages can include the following:

  • an AS/RS, its SRM and the racking can be built to a height of more than 30 metres, if desired, thus dramatically reducing the storage footprint, whereas normal forklifts are impractical above a height of 10 metres;
  • racking for an AS/RS can form the building structure and be clad as a building would, thus reducing building costs;
  • an SRM can travel at up to 200 metres per minute within its aisle, whereas forklifts are limited to walking pace, or a crawl at heights;
  • the aisle for the SRM only needs to be slightly wider than the largest load to be stored within the AS/RS, thus eliminating the space wasted within normal aisles for forklifts;
  • items stored within the AS/RS cannot be misplaced or lost by operator error, as the controlling computer ‘memorises’ the storage location of all stored products;
  • as the AS/RS is a machine, the whole structure and its machinery, with the exception of the point of input and output, must be fully enclosed to preclude ingress by personnel, thus guaranteeing the safety of your team members, and thereby providing high security should your products require secure storage;
  • if your products need to be stored within either a chilled or frozen environment, then all the above benefits can contribute to significant reductions in both the capital costs required to build the facility, as well as the long-term costs of operating the facility, especially through the significant reduction in the power consumed to maintain the required temperatures within the smaller environment.

Although AS/RS technology is not new, with the leading manufacturers having been supplying warehouse and distribution operations with this technology for more than 40 years, advances in computer technology have made industry-leading AS/RS designs the norm rather than the exception in efficient warehouse and DC operations.
The world’s best AS/RS manufacturers include lines to not only store and retrieve normal pallet-sized unit loads, but also store and retrieve almost any sized load used in a warehouse or DC environment, from small cartons or tote boxes right up to large and heavy manufacturing components. All systems offer high-density storage capacity in a compact footprint, but with high accessibility.

For example, in warehouses and DCs around the world, AS/RS technology is used to automatically store and retrieve groceries, packaged food, fresh food, chilled food such as vegetables, frozen food, agricultural products, beverages, pharmaceuticals, electrical goods, chemicals, hardware, raw and finished products used in metals processing, furniture, motor vehicle parts, aircraft parts, food processing work in process, sterile containers for hospitals, books for libraries, and even apparel.
However, you may be concerned that an AS/RS will limit the operating flexibility of your warehouse or DC, especially from the point of view of its ability to respond to urgent requirements. This is not an issue if the manufacturer of the AS/RS has a broad range of models with widely different performance specifications capable of supporting a wide range of products and retrieval requirements, and if the system is configured to accommodate a wide range of products, including fast moving consumer goods (FMCG). Also, the solution must consist of an appropriate balance of manual and automated processing to best suit your industry and products. For example, should your team members need to pick individual cartons of products from within your AS/RS, then the AS/RS can be designed and configured to achieve this goal in an efficient manner without your team members having to travel the distances required to achieve the same process in a normal warehouse of DC.

The use of AS/RS technologies in Australian is lagging behind the rest of the world, as there is a perception based on past experiences and technologies that a typical AS/RS might have limited flexibility to support the nimble and flexible warehousing and distribution operations of current businesses in markets such as FMCG. Also, there has been limited market availability of broad-based AS/RS technologies that are capable of supporting a wide range of products and businesses.
One of the large driving forces behind the adoption of AS/RS overseas has been the ability of an AS/RS to provide efficient storage and retrieval of products in a significantly smaller footprint than any other competing technologies, thus reducing the amount of land required for the warehousing and distribution operation.
While land availability has not been a traditional problem in the Australian market, our emphasis on OHS has certainly led to the adoption of AS/RS units for reasons of workplace safety. This is an area where AS/RS technology can provide the following significant benefits:

  • depending on how much of your traditional product storage and retrieval can be replaced by an AS/RS, your warehouse or DC can realise proportionate reductions in the need for forklifts and their ever-present dangers.
  • as all elevated bulk or unit loads are within the confines of the AS/RS, none of these products or loads can fall on team members.
  • all product selection from an AS/RS involving your team members can be configured to be fully ergonomic.

Of course, another growing area of concern for warehouses and DCs in Australia is the growing requirement to provide faster, more frequent deliveries of products to your customers. Traditionally, this is achieved by employing more team members, or by asking your team members to work longer hours. However, AS/RS technology can provide the ultimately flexible solution with quick response times and the added advantage of reduced operating costs through the reduced need for labour.
As a facilities manager, you are frequently looking for ways to do things better and smarter. If this is you, and you would like to improve the operation of your warehouse or DC, then you should explore what high-quality, broad-based AS/RS technology can do to improve the efficiency, safety and cost effectiveness of your operation. Remember, this proven technology is not new. It has become highly refined with the top suppliers overseas and has a long history of success.

Robert Meade, warehouse applications manager for Webb Australia, has 35 years of comprehensive experience in the logistics and supply chain industry in Australia, including the operational management and design of leading warehouses and DCs.

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