chaz2There are many pitfalls on the road to a successful automated warehouse project, not least, perhaps, making the right choice of solutions provider. This is a crucial aspect because if things go wrong it is important that the solutions provider is financially and technically strong and experienced enough to put matters right.

The recession since 2008, however, highlights a worrying trend in this respect. The doyen of automated handling schemes providers, Swisslog, notes an altered, competitive landscape in recent years, doubtless fuelled by the recession. Sub-systems suppliers, it reports, are increasingly becoming direct competitors as they take on the role of main solutions providers. In this writer’s view not only do these “arrivistes” have less financial muscle but they also lack the experience of main contractor roles and could also be relatively weak on software implementation.

If customers must choose these sub systems suppliers as overall solutions providers they should seriously consider reducing their exposure by choosing a specialist systems integrator, who could act in a higher role than solutions provider by suggesting other schemes that could be more effective.

The competitive landscape is also changing in other ways. Swisslog reports that its customers have new and/or additional requirements for internal logistics. One likely driver behind this trend is the growing dominance of internet shopping, which is gradually undermining traditional bricks and mortar retail outlets. To cope with cyber shopping, solutions providers must build in robust kit to cope with returns.

Swisslog’s answer to the changing environment is to expand its product portfolio to allow a high level of innovation. Last year, for example, it launched two new initiatives for the handling of light goods (bins, etc): the Tornado miniload crane and the Quickmove conveyor system, the latter in collaboration with Interroll.

Another company unafraid to invest in new technology during recessions is SSI Schaefer, as epitomised by their launch of Orbiter at the Food and Drinks exhibition, NEC, in March. Storage space, particularly in cold stores, is a costly overhead so the denser the pallet storage scheme the lower the cost per pallet stored. In the past, drive in/drive through racking was usually the chosen method, or mobile racking, particularly in cold stores. The former, however, is notorious for accidental damage and the latter is slower and needs more space as aisles must be opened for forklift access.

On both safety and storage density the Orbiter System is superior. It uses an electrically driven trolley which runs on rails below the pallets while under radio frequency control from forklift drivers. If used on a FILO basis, it can work in channel depths of 40 mt. The FIFO method allows two Orbiters per channel and the system is rugged enough for cold storage work.

And of the future? Swisslog sees the current year characterized by uncertainty, “as economic conditions in 2010 will remain tense,” say the chairman and chief executive. Nevertheless, they see new orders received and rising demand for new projects as grounds for cautious optimism.

Warehouse & Logistics News

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