Distribution centres (DCs) are scaling up in size with some of the largest of online fulfillment centres being over 1 million sq. ft. Trying to navigate these behemoths is a struggle without the requisite automation. From rumblings on the Internet from disgruntled staffers, we gathered that some order pickers have had to walk over 15 kms. in a single shift. They have our sympathies. It is exhausting and not terribly productive.
What are some of the systems which can help companies move cartons, totes and boxes smoothly and efficiently, increase labour productivity and improve working conditions? Three possible systems come to mind – automated guided vehicle (AGVs), conveyors and autocruisers.
AGVs are gaining in popularity in DCs with advancement in technology. At Logimat 2015, a key trade event for distribution and materials handling, a number different types of AGVs were on display, including Amazon’s Kiva, SSI Schaefer “Weasel” and Swisslog’s Carrypro. Versatile and adaptable, these handysized robots can zip along optical tracks, which can be installed quickly and easily, with only an occasional break for a battery charge.
Conveyors are integral to modern manufacturing and material handling. Since their advent over 100 years ago, powered conveyors have increased productivity and reduced transport turnaround, whether they are installed in the warehouse for receiving and despatch, or integrated into order picking systems.
Autocruisers are more recent incarnations. Basically battery powered carriers running on tracks, the autocruisers can be put to work with minimal fuss to transport loads within the DCs and also allow inter floor transport. Each carrier can carry loads of between 1kg and 30kg. The system can operate 24/7 as carrier batteries can be recharged at stations along the tracks. And with no cabling alongside the tracks, the track layout can be easily changed in response to demand.
Which system should you consider for your warehouse?
It depends on the size and scale and complexity of your operation and budget.
Nothing beats the conveyors when it comes to high throughput. Depending on the transfer elements used to build the conveying system, it can do 1,500 to 6,000 transports per hour.
By the same token you will need a high throughput to justify making the investment. It may not be cost-effective to install a conveyor if your throughput should fall below 400 transports per hour.
Autocruisers is well suited for low to medium throughput. Based on the transfer elements, such as switches and swivel plates, one AutoCruiser line can reach a throughput of 250-600 units per hour.
They are also economical to run as the initial investment and start-up costs are much lower than conveyors. Because the carriers are track-bound, they are less complex than AGVs and also allow for manual control without material flow system or fleet controller. They are the ideal solution for shorter distances and lower number of destination points.
As for the AGVs, they can do roughly 50-100 tours per hour. They are ideal as complement to human, undertaking repetitive tasks, or helping to transport bins, boxes or small parts of varying dimensions from small, tight spaces over longer distances with higher complexity. As no complex installation or customisation is needed, they can be put to work immediately.
Do check out with a competent consultant who can assist you make an informed decision.