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Automation: Materials handling continues to innovate

July 13, 2012

When I began writing about technology in the late 90’s, warehouse management systems and software were all the rage. The unleashing of the Internet in 2000 exacerbated that trend, as companies rushed to bring their technology systems up to snuff to take advantage of the web. That period was followed by a tremendous amount of interest in data collection technologies, spurred on by RFID and voice recognition.

Automation during that period was mostly focused on speeds and feeds. How fast was your conveyor? How many cartons could your sorter sort?

Today, WMS is still a fantastic technology, but it’s a mature technology. Meanwhile, we read about new automation solutions all the time. Sure mobile robotics, shuttle technology, automatic lift trucks and robotic palletizers are variations on themes that have been in the market for years. And yes, they are still emerging technologies that are not widely implemented. But they suddenly seem within reach of end users who are looking for new ways to solve their storage and picking problems. So, what gives?

“Personally, I think this has been facilitated by distributed control,” says Cory Hypes, vice president of global sales and marketing for Power Automation Systems.

Distributed control was the ability to put controls, software and decision-making at the level of the machine. “Ten years ago, you had centralized control of an AGV or an AS/RS system. But then, we began to see conveyor systems with smart rollers. If you think of what Kiva did, they broke an AS/RS into its individual moving parts and created a whole new way of approaching materials handling. Instead of one giant gorilla doing all the work, you had 100 monkeys. The same thing is happening with other technologies. Automation is getting smarter” 

Now, you may not have heard of Power Automation Systems, or PAS, but they exhibited at Modex. In my mind, PAS was an example of a new variation on an old theme, a combination of shuttle-like technology adapted for unit loads and deep-lane pallet storage in a high-density format. “We describe it as a cart and lift AS/RS rather than a crane-based AS/RS,” Hypes explains.

The system was actually the brain child of the parent company, California Natural Products, which is co-packer of food and beverage products. The owner of the company was looking for an AS/RS system for his operations, didn’t like what he saw and developed his own solution. The first deployment was in a California Natural Products facility about ten years ago. Between 2005 and 2007 several more deployments took place in Spain – in companies where the owner had a relationship. One of those systems works in conjunction with an automatic truck loading system to automate the shipping dock. Today, there are nine systems in operation with a half dozen more on the order books.

It works like this. A pallet is loaded onto a lift – think of it as an elevator – that delivers the load to a designated storage level in the system. So far, it’s like a shuttle system. On each level is a pair of carts that work in tandem to service the area. One cart picks up the unit load and travels down an aisle; the other cart puts the load away into the storage lane. Where a traditional AS/RS typically services one or two pallets deep, PAS has serviced lanes from 5 to 15 pallets deep. They are in talks with a potential customer to do a 20 pallet deep system. Click here to see an animation of how the technology works.

This is not a solution for every operation, not even every pallet handling operation. The sweet spot, Hypes explains, is manufacturers like those in food and beverage that produce a relatively high volume of pallets of a relatively few number of SKUs and can take advantage of deep lane storage. “Its an existing building with high throughput,” says Hypes. “You do not need a tall warehouse to make the system pay.”

One client they are currently working with justified the system by bringing storage in-house from an off-site 3PL. “Since we can do deep-lane storage in an ultra high density environment, they were able to bring in the off-site storage without adding to the warehouse.”

While the initial focus has been other food and beverage-related companies like the parent company, PAS is eyeing other industries, such as pharmaceutical and consumer packaged goods as potential users. It is also looking at the potential of using the system to stage pallets in the shipping area until a trailer is ready for loading. “Instead of dedicating a few rows to one SKU, we could use those rows for one trailer,” Hypes says. “We are also looking at partners for automatic truck loading like they’re doing at one of our customers in Spain. The pallet can come directly out of our system and go right into a trailer.”

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About the Author

Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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