Featuring state-of-the-art automated handling equipment, The Co-operative Pharmacy’s new distribution centre in Stoke-on-Trent is one of Europe’s largest and most impressive pharmaceutical warehouses.

Prior to the decision to invest £16 million in a new and highly automated national distribution centre, the UK’s third largest pharmacy chain was supplying its high street stores from several, smaller warehouses – a situation that was proving to be less than ideal. Explains Jonathan Bomphray, Head of Logistics and Operations for The Co-operative Pharmacy, “We wanted to serve our 800 branches – which between them dispense over 60 million prescriptions a year – from one system. This would give us greater control over our own brand ranges and the opportunity to hold and distribute additional seasonal lines, as well as offering a degree of protection against market shortages.”

Built in under a year

Officially opened by Stoke City FC midfielder, Rory Delap, and Co-operative Group Chief Executive, Peter Marks, in October 2009, the impressive DC had already been operational since August – that is, less than a year after the first sod was ceremoniously dug. Its entire internal logistics system was supplied by KNAPP, acting as general contractor and systems integrator.

At 17,000 square metres, with an additional 2,600 square metres of mezzanine, the warehouse is around four times the size of the company’s former facility in nearby Wolstanton. The new DC fulfils demand for The Co-operative Pharmacy’s fastest-moving prescription medicines and OTC (over the counter) products, with each UK branch receiving a daily delivery.

Automatic picking

A staggering 80% of products at the new facility are dispensed via completely automated handling equipment into totes, with the remaining 20% being manually picked using radio frequency (RF) technology in four picking areas.

Incoming goods are decanted into totes at one of 32 workstations and then transported by some of the 3,700 metres of conveyor to an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS). This store can accommodate 82,200 totes and is served by six miniload cranes in aisles that are 10m high and 60m long.

Goods from the ASRS are used to feed 10 manual picking stations – which use RF picking techniques – as well as to replenish three A-frame autopickers. These fully automatic picking machines feature a total of 3,720 channels and eject goods onto a moving central belt – with individual orders collated in specific sections of the belt – before depositing each order into a separate tote. There is also a picking area for whole pallets, featuring 10 picking stations with 68 flow rack channels.

Robotic palletizers

Totes ready for dispatch are automatically lidded and sealed before being palletized by one of two robots – which have a combined throughput of 2,400 totes per hour – and then automatically shrink-wrapped by machines with a capacity of 80 pallets per hour. All material movements at the facility are controlled by KNAPP’s ‘KLASS-X’ control system, operating under The Co-operative Pharmacy’s WMS, and lot tracking is 100% feasible for the whole warehouse.

The Meir Park DC has the capacity to fulfil 160,000 order lines in one shift, distributing 420,000 units in 6,000 totes a day. The company is reaping the benefits it sought in making the huge investment: improved product availability and optimised service levels in the pharmacies.

Resident engineers

The Co-operative Pharmacy also contracted KNAPP UK to supply a team of resident engineers at the site from the very beginning. Having KNAPP technicians permanently at the warehouse has proved the right decision for the Stoke-on-Trent DC. “Although commissioning and start-up here at Meir Park proved to be remarkably plain sailing,” says Jonathan Bomphray, “there’s no denying that it was extremely useful to have KNAPP engineers on site from day one. They sorted out the inevitable teething problems quickly and efficiently and their programme of preventive maintenance for the automated handling system is already paying dividends.”

By outsourcing the support for its automated handling system, The Co-operative Pharmacy benefits from priority service at a fixed cost. The resident service technicians use E-Support, KNAPP’s web-based spare parts system to order any parts required for the facility and use thermal imaging techniques to enhance and prioritize their service work.

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