Mobile automation takes on expanding requirements

A mobile goods-to-person order picking system helps an abrasives products maker efficiently fill orders from expanded inventory, while also bringing some training and retention benefits.

When you offer high quality products and emphasize customer service, keeping warehouse operations fast, accurate and efficient is a high priority. This mix of factors prompted Klingspor to add a mobile goods-to-person solution to its DC operation to achieve its target service levels, even in the face of expanded inventories.

Klingspor is a leading manufacturer of abrasive products including materials for grinding and finishing of metal, the sanding of wood, and all facets of sanding and grinding for marine, aerospace, glass and specialty products industries. The company, with roots and global headquarters in Germany, expanded to the U.S. market in 1980 with the opening of its Hickory, N.C., manufacturing and DC site.

This site provides approximately 6,000 products in stock, and an additional 250,000 available through on-demand manufacturing, serving customers in a network of 200 North American representatives and its e-commerce site. It ships in-stock orders in less than 24 hours and manufactured orders in less than 48 hours.

With the number of in-stock products expanding, the company was outgrowing its facility. Klingspor decided to build a new facility in Hickory, expanding the size of the DC while adding more office space and an on-site kindergarten and daycare center.

Jakob Dreisbach, Klingspor’s vice president of supply chain and manufacturing, saw the opportunity to automate existing manual picking processes as an alternative to adding hard-to-find personnel.

“With manual processes, you are very dependent on the skill and experience of individual pickers,” Dreisbach said. “That’s a risky situation for a business in a tight labor market. It can take several months for a new picker to reach an acceptable level of productivity, and many struggle with the challenge of learning product locations and moving efficiently around the warehouse. We had to either hire more people and risk reducing productivity, or automate our processes.”

The company chose a mobile storage and order picking system (Swisslog). The CarryPick system uses compact automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) that bring mobile storage units with goods needed to fill orders to pick stations where stationary pickers can fill orders. The goods-to-person (GTP) nature eliminates much of the walking and inefficiencies found in more traditional picking methods.

The system can be deployed in an existing facility without modifications and can be scaled up by adding more robots, storage units or pick stations. Since the system is based on mobile components, if one robot needs to be serviced, the system stays running. The GTP system and its light-enabled pick stations simplify associate training.

“We liked the flexibility of the system,” Dreisbach said. “When we need more storage, we can add more mobile racks, and when we need more throughput, we can add more AGVs or pick stations, all without disrupting service to customers.”

Klingspor deployed 16 CarryPick AGVs supporting 962 storage racks, two pick stations and one replenishment station. Swisslog’s SynQ CarryPick Director software was integrated with the company’s warehouse management system for automation control. For Klingspor, the biggest advantage of the system has been mitigating the challenging labor market.

“Turnover is a fact of life in distribution,” Dreisbach said. “But it’s very difficult to manage when it takes several months for a new employee to become productive. The system eliminates the need for employees to learn the locations of products within the warehouse so they become productive much faster. We now have new employees reaching their productivity goals in a week rather than several months.”

Mobile storage units hold needed inventory that are brought to human pickers who stay at the system’s pick stations.

Dreisbach has found the system aids in recruiting and retention. “Younger people, in particular, are fascinated with the touchscreens and robots,” he said. “We have a much easier time bringing in new people when they learn they will be working with a robotic system and our retention rates are higher.”

The improved productivity became crucial in 2020. After seeing a drop in demand during the first months of the pandemic, orders picked up in June as the company’s customers resumed production, with consistently high demand the remainder of the year. With this system, pickers could remain socially distanced and productive.

“We’ve been running at production speed for about a year and are very pleased with the performance of the AGVs,” Dreisbach said. “The reliability has been good, and it’s amazing to watch them operate. The user interface is also well designed for operators and makes it easy for our technicians to clear errors when they occur.”

With the system established, the company is looking to expand by adding an additional pick station for periods of high demand.

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About the Author

Roberto Michel's avatar
Roberto Michel
Roberto Michel, senior editor for Modern, has covered manufacturing and supply chain management trends since 1996, mainly as a former staff editor and former contributor at Manufacturing Business Technology. He has been a contributor to Modern since 2004. He has worked on numerous show dailies, including at ProMat, the North American Material Handling Logistics show, and National Manufacturing Week. You can reach him at: [email protected].
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