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Automation: febi bilstein automates distribution

German auto parts manufacturer febi bilstein is reaping big gains from materials handling automation. Here’s what the company learned when it automated conventional distribution processes.
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Totes are delivered from the mini-load AS/RS to workstations. Febi employees played a role in the ergonomic design of their work areas.

By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
June 01, 2011

Automation implementation
At first glance, automation appeared to provide an answer for each of those challenges. However, febi did not leap directly from conventional warehouse processes into automation. Instead, the company made the move in two steps.

The first step was to implement a semi-automated order picking system—what febi refers to as an Order Picking System or OPS—in the existing facility in Ennepetal. This featured 38,000 tote storage positions and a four-aisle, goods-to-person order picking system.

“We knew that automation was going to be a big step and a big investment,” says Boecker. “Before taking that step, we wanted to understand what automation would mean to our processes and how a larger, more automated system might work, so we began with the first investment.”

That first system included a goods-to-person picking solution. The system delivers totes from a mini-load AS/RS to an ergonomic workstation in the sequence that the associate will pick the items. Today, that system is primarily used to aggregate slow moving parts.

But this wasn’t just about swapping a manual order picking process for an automated system. Febi also realized that an effective change management strategy was critical for the system to gain acceptance by febi’s workforce.

For instance, febi associates helped design the interfaces and displays on the screens that direct picking. Their input was also critical in the design of the workstations themselves to accommodate an aging workforce.

One of the changes was to install some 30 lift tables that allow the associate to adjust the height of their work space. “They really helped us design the area, and we have other initiatives to improve working conditions in the facility today,” Boecker adds.

When the system went live in 2005, febi trained key employees on the use of the system. Those employees, in turn, trained the rest of the staff.

“What we learned is that we were much more efficient and productive with automation, and we could turn orders much faster,” says Boecker.

Going live with automation
With the first system a success, febi began planning for the new distribution center.

The new facility was constructed next to the facility in Ennepetal at the end of October 2008 and has been fully operational since March 2009. After three and a half months of parallel operation, the new DC was linked up to the existing semi-automated pallet warehouse and four-aisle order picking system that was opened in 2005.

The new system includes a 10-aisle automated small parts warehouse with 98,000 tote spaces. In addition, a seven-aisle, high-bay warehouse includes some 40,000 pallet storage positions. The two systems combined cover the vast spectrum of febi’s portfolio of spare parts.

With the new distribution center, febi is able to store more than 24,000 different articles with minimal space required. According to the output plan, the system can process more than 230,000 picks, which corresponds to 27,000 order lines per day.

The order picking system integrates an automated small parts warehouse with a distribution loop and upstream picking stations. The system stages the articles for a given order at the picking workstations in the correct sequence according to the goods-to-man principle. They are then picked and packaged into the shipping carton. The optimal size of the shipping carton is determined using a prior volume calculation.

Heavy, voluminous and bulky articles are stored and picked with the pallet picking system, which is also a goods-to-person system. The warehouse control system directs all necessary pallet movements from the high bay warehouse and signals the stock removal quantities to employees with pick-to-light displays.

The dynamic picking front is generated for a given order by transfer cars. The order pallet is staged centrally at the picking front between the individual warehouse pallets. As a result, the paths that the employees have to take, as well as their lifting duties, are minimized and the work can be performed ergonomically despite an article range of many different sizes.

The two buildings are connected by a bridge. That allows the warehouse management system (WMS) to synchronize orders that are filled across the two systems. Consequently, the customer is always supplied with the ideal package size.

Adding automation has also allowed febi to redesign its picking process. In the past, one worker was in charge of filling an entire order for a customer, everything from picking the parts to printing out the labels and paperwork. Today, the components of an order are distributed among employees.

“One employee is tasked with picking parts of the boxes for an order, and another packs the parts and compiles the paperwork,” says Boecker. “What’s more, our employees are cross-trained on each step and rotate jobs so that they don’t get bored—and make mistakes—doing the same job over and over.” Cross-training also allows Febi to move staff between departments as demand shifts.

Finally, the old pallet and tote warehouses have been reintroduced into the total logistics concept to provide further storage capacity.

“With the capacity of the new facility we are ideally equipped for the future even as our business continues to grow,” says Boecker.

Lessons learned
Febi has been working with the two systems for more than two years. Over that time, automation has delivered some significant improvements. In the first year that both systems were in operation, productivity improved by 20%. In 2010, febi experienced another 20% productivity improvement.

The company is now looking at whether to add automation to its warehouse operations in other countries as well. More importantly, febi believes it can meet its goal and maintain its market-leading logistics position well into 2015.  “We now have an entirely future-proof logistics system that combines maximum effectiveness, cost efficiency and flexibility,” says Boeker. “This further strengthens our service and cost leadership ambitions within the industry and provides us with a sustainable competitive advantage.”

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The state of automation in materials handling
Despite the recession, our industry is reaching an inflection point for automation.

 

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Executive Editor

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. More recently, Trebilcock became editorial director of Supply Chain Management Review. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.


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