Everyone knows that old joke about why the supply chain rooster crossed the road, right? Well, now that the rooster has made it to the other side, the interesting question becomes, “How did he get there?” And the answer is, of course, the same way supply chain professionals move any product: by taking advantage of the best available technology. These days, even when new material handling products look like older models, design improvements and savvy use of automation go a long way to maximize their performance.

“Not different but better” sums up the current state of material handling hardware. Mature warehousing automation is smarter, less expensive, and better made than it used to be, experts say; good news for operations professionals struggling to make the most of their resources in the current buyer’s market.

“Nowadays, practicality is premium,” says J. C. Caraway, sales manager for C&D Robotics Inc., a Beaumont, TX-based material handling manufacturer specializing in gantry robotic solutions. “Distribution centers want to automate when it makes sense, and shy from automation when it doesn’t. The solution providers have been following this trend, and in recent years material handling equipment has seen a lot of improvement. These advanced technologies help companies by providing better-quality pallets, greater accuracy, more efficient shipping, and fewer errors. When used to their best advantage, the solutions pay for themselves.”

Recent refinements in automated picking, storage and retrieval systems, conveyors, integrated controls, and driverless vehicles have earned these veteran technologies a permanent place in warehouse operations. In the world of supply chain management, total product availability, fast and accurate delivery, and value-added services are the criteria by which operations conquer or fall. Yesterday’s material handling systems were built with efficiency and economy in mind, and today they are actually being used for that purpose.

“Hard times are forcing companies to function more efficiently,” says Norman Saenz, Jr., associate manager of logistics for Fort Worth, TX-based Carter & Burgess Inc., an architectural engineering and logistics design firm that specializes in warehousing and distribution. “The grand design now is to achieve greater throughput through a more effective use of time and energy. One area of concentration is picking, traditionally a part of warehouse operation where many people are employed and time is wasted hunting down product. Pick-to-light and voice recognition are becoming increasingly popular. Voice, in particular, is catching on, as it allows workers to do their jobs hands-free. RFID tag is hot too, and will become even more viable as the technology gets better and less expensive.”

Loaded for bear

By the late 1990s, Discount Auto Parts Inc. was one of the largest automotive after-market retailers in the county. Hundreds of stores were spread out over six Southeastern states. A single distribution warehouse serviced this retail constellation — a 621,500-sq.-ft. facility located at the company’s Lakeland, FL, headquarters. But as 1998 drew to a close, Discount Auto was faced with a thorny logistical problem. The Lakeland warehouse was simply not big enough to cope with the supply demands of the rapidly expanding retail chain.

The obvious solution was to build another distribution center. After reviewing more than 20 candidate communities, Discount Auto decided on Gallman, MS. The town was situated at the center of the firm’s projected growth radius, within easy striking distance of all the new stores. The new 413,000-sq.-ft. warehouse was operational by March 2001.

When the new facility opened, it assumed replenishment responsibilities for 160 stores and was expected to accommodate many more easily. The warehouse was configured to the meet the special stocking requirements of the stores themselves, which, like most retail operations, were strong on product display but short on stock space. All material handling solutions within the warehouse were installed with the objective of reducing store inventories by shortening delivery cycles and improving accuracy.

In terms of automation, the Gallman DC was loaded for bear. Included in its equipment arsenal were 28 picking carousels; over 8,000 pick-to-light locations; five flat-shoe sorters; 2,700 RF picking locations; two 32-position pallet carousels; 21,000 feet of conveyor; and a gantry robotic palletizer. Real Time Solutions of Emeryville, CA (a subsidiary of FKI Logistex PLC of Danville, KY), partnered with Discount Auto to equip the Gallman DC with this battery of 21st — century material handling technologies. Two other FKI divisions participated. Alvey Systems of St. Louis, MO, provided the gantry cranes and conveyor, and White Systems of Kenilworth, NJ, provided the carousels.

“The Gallman warehouse is cutting-edge,” says Mark Diehl, Real Time’s director of technical sales. “The Gallman site is equipped with the most up-to-date picking technologies available, and all are tied to a single interface. Historically, one of the quandaries associated with material handling technology is that you couldn’t get all the pieces in the warehouse to talk to one another. At the Gallman warehouse, all the picking technologies are managed by only one server, facilitating easy communication. That’s a major departure from business as usual, not just cutting-edge, but revolutionary.”

Wrench in the works

Just as the action at the Mississippi warehouse was beginning to heat up, Discount Auto merged with Advanced Auto Parts Inc. of Roanoke, VA. In its new incarnation, the store count of the company formerly known as Discount Auto doubled. At the time of the acquisition, Advanced operated more than 2,400 stores in 38 states, plus outlets in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The number of locations the Gallman facility had to serve would jump from 160 to 317, without taking into account new store openings already planned by Discount Auto. Was the new facility up to the task? Yes, claims distribution center manager Steve Smith.

“We’re all looking forward to seeing how Gallman will perform, post-change,” Smith says. “At the moment we’re still in transition. We completed the last order for Discount Auto a couple of days ago, and are planning on taking over part of the replenishment responsibility for Advanced on May 27. When the new warehouse is fully operational, it will be equipped to handle 400 stores. We anticipate achieving this with no sweat. This is an exceptional facility, and when we convert our WMS to accommodate the change, we should be able to service the Advance stores company-wide.”

Fetch and load

The drive to reduce waste has motivated the beverage industry and other sectors of the retail economy with large material handling operations to manage their vertical space more efficiently, Saenz says. Many have invested in pallet flow racks and automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), crane-operated systems that make it possible to rack pallets as high as 100 feet in the air. The crane moves in and out of the aisles, storing and retrieving pallets. The system saves space by utilizing height, and it reduces to virtually zero the number of people required for such an operation.

The cutting edge in AS/RS is the double-deep lateral belt transfer system offered by viastore systems inc., a German supplier of material handling equipment with U.S. headquarters in Grand Rapids, MI. Central to the viastore system, according to senior account manager Paul Gutilla, is a computer-driven, rail-mounted crane that travels up and down a very narrow aisle, storing and retrieving product. What distinguishes the viastore crane from competitors is its ability to handle double loads independently. The system has other talents as well, all significant time-savers. The crane can be programmed to rearrange loads in the rack during off-peak hours; and even after hours, it can pre-stage new loads closer to output stations in time for the next duty cycle. Properly applied, a viastore deep lateral belt transfer system can perform 140-150 dual transactions per hour, using only one crane and one load-handling device.

“Our system has the capability to individually raise either load, making it possible to move the un-raised load off of the belt,” says Gutilla. “If you want the load that is in the rear rack location, you can bring out both loads, and then individually offload the one that you don’t want, go to the location in the rack where the designated load is the first load, pick it up, and always come out to the front of the aisle with two good loads. With other load systems, you’re always moving two loads simultaneously. If you pick up both loads and bring them out into the aisle, you’ll always wind up with a load you want and one you don’t want, and that’s incredibly inefficient. Think of the viastore system as ambidextrous. With other load handling devices, you have only one hand to work with, but with viastore you have equal access to either the left hand or the right.”

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) often work with AS/RS, and they operate according to a similar principle. These driverless trucks run along a wire-guided path built into the floor. Laser guiding has usurped the wire in many warehouses, and in some operations; the AGVs run along a grid defined by an AutoCad layout, which allows for easy path changing, and requires less equipment to get up and running. At the bleeding edge of AGV technology is the automated truck loading system (ATLS) of Paco Corporation, a mechanical machinery manufacturer in St. Hubert, Quebec. According to product manager Alain Gobeil, the ATLS is revolutionary because it can be implemented without modifying the loading dock or trailer (see page 34).

The Procter & Gamble Company of Westchester, OH, is the only customer to have implemented the technology so far, but according to P&G logistics engineer Matthew Bole, the ATLS has exceeded expectations. “The big breakthrough with the Paco system was that it allowed you to do automated truck loading with standard trailers,” Bole says. “With a fixed fleet of modified trailers, you can only ship a short distance to an outside warehouse. With a standard trailer you can go anywhere, which obviously has a significantly positive impact on the bottom line.”

Move and sort

Conveyors and automated sorting systems have also seen significant improvement, says Al Oppenheim, vice president of system sales for Intelligrated Inc., a manufacturer and supplier of integrated material handling solutions, services, and products, headquartered in Cincinnati. The motor-driven conveyor, a work in progress for more than ten years, can now handle loads upward of 3,000 lbs. at speeds of 300 ft. a minute, Oppenheim says. Almost exclusively used as horizontal roller conveyors until very recently, motor-driven solutions have become practical for incline/decline accumulation, spiral transit accumulation, and pallet conveying.

Zero-pressure accumulator conveyors have come into their own as well, says John Giangrande, systems sales manager for Fortna Inc., a design/build integration firm in West Reading, PA, specializing in the development and implementation of distribution systems. The conveyors are especially useful in fulfillment operations, Giangrande says, as they are configured to work with the one- and two-line orders typically processed by online retailers and catalog houses.

Electronic sensors mounted on the sides and on the rollers themselves detect the presence of a box, a tote, or even a pallet, and respond accordingly. Because the system is electronically driven, there is no weight requirement. Theoretically, one need only place a credit card on a zero-pressure conveyor to get it rolling, Giangrande says.

Coat upon a stick

There have also been great strides made in the way that hanging apparel is transferred and processed in distribution centers. Most companies use chain-driven trolleys to move such products, says Patrick Eidemiller, vice president of consulting services at SDI Industries Inc., a designer, builder, and installer of distribution centers based in Pacoima, CA. Originally developed for the automotive industry, trolleys are an expensive solution requiring frequent maintenance and a good deal of human handling. For decades, retail institutions such as Sears, Roebuck and Co. relied on this antiquated technology to move garments through their DCs. Four years ago, Sears installed an SDI PolyTube garment transfer solution in its Columbus, OH, distribution center, retiring a geriatric trolley system that had been on duty there for more than 30 years.

“The PolyTube is a trolleyless, four-wall transportation system,” says Michael DeWitt, Western Region operations manager for Sears Logistics Services in Hoffman Estates, IL. “PolyTube increases both capacity and productivity for garment-on-hanger product (GOH). You put the garments directly on the PolyTube lines instead of hanging them on trolleys, giving about 20-25 more linear footage to work with than before. This has resulted in a capacity increase of about 20%. The PolyTube is also much quieter than the trolleys, and less dangerous. Some of the trolleys weigh as much as 40 lbs. If one of them fell, it could severely injure someone.” DeWitt says that Sears Logistics Services now has PolyTube solutions fully installed in two of its DCs, and is currently setting up a third.

Sorters too have come a long way. Sliding shoe sorters now operate at 600 ft. or 200 cartons per minute, says Oppenheim — light speed compared to what was possible only five years ago. Narrow belt sorters are yet another leading development in this area. These sorters, according to Giangrande, have a 90% transfer capacity, allowing them to divert to the left and to the right. This was not the case with the old O-ring transfer systems, which could push product in one direction or the other but not both.

According to Giangrande, “Narrow belt sorters significantly increase throughput. When working at full ‘slug load,’ the most muscular O-ring pusher averages only around 25 cases per minute. Narrow belts give you an average of 60 cases per minute, and with smaller-sized cases as much as 100-120 per minute. That’s a quantum leap over the older technology.”

D. Douglas Graham is a freelance writer based in Columbia, MO. His articles have been published in Warehousing Management, Textile Rental, and Country Business. He can be reached by e-mail at, or by phone at (573) 449-4860.

High Five

Move Store Control Protect Other
Forklift trucks Pallet racks, shelving, bins Equipment, devices Pallets, containers Systems integration
Other wheeled equipment AS/RS Auto ID (incl. labeling) Packaging and related areas
Conveyors, incl. sortation Carousels, vertical lift Software (incl. simulation) Wrapping-related equipment
Overhead equipment Flow racks
Work positioning Other order-picking equip.
Loading dock equipment Mezzanines

Top Picks

Carton/tote routing system Routes cartons and totes to required picking zones; Windows NT interface; prioritizes destination and confirms diverts to proper zones
Accumulating belt conveyors Electronically controlled; raise and lower in bed frame
Noise reduction conveyors Low-voltage DC-powered drive rollers; multiple slave-driven rollers off power units; instant on/off controls; reduced noise and energy
Powered loading conveyors Heavy-duty drive-on trailer system; rugged construction; large-diameter wheels
Automated picking module Wide range of cases, sizes, and weights; huge capacity
Ergonomic empty pallet return system Reduces lifting loads up to 50%; stacks of six to ten pallets can be delivered to pick-up station
Narrow aisle LP gas powered articulated truck Uses 50% less space; performs both move-to-storage and putaway operations
Conductive dividable grid containers Varied sizes; ideal for electronic parts and assemblies; optional lids, label holders, and interior dividers
Palm Pilot technology Scheduling; RF activity; labor time studies; receiving, putaway, and other core warehouse functions
RFID tags Growing 25% a year, reaching $2.65 billion in 2005, with 30% of that amount in warehousing and transport; moving toward high-speed conveyor systems
Voice/speech recognition Ups productivity 20%; hands-free operation; speaker-dependent or independent; text to speech (robotic); digitized human voice (person)
Extensible markup language (XML) Used for POs and ASNs; alternative to EDI; computer-to-computer communication
Sources: APMHC, Venture Development Group

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