If there is any one trend that stands out in the automated conveying market it is, perhaps, the emphasis on reducing costs associated with order picking. Driving this trend is the rapid growth in e-commerce and home shopping, said now to be worth £50 billion in the UK alone. Dealing with home deliveries means a big increase in the trend to smaller orders and an increase in item picking, which lends itself to goods to man systems combining miniload or shuttle-based storage with conveyors and ergonomic work stations.

A distinction, however, should be made between shuttles working in and confined to storage lanes for pallet and sub pallet loads and open shuttles which are AGVs of the kind launched at Cemat this year by Knapp. In the past, AGVs have been confined to moving pallet-sized loads or larger and could themselves be considered as shuttles but now much smaller versions are being developed for cartons and containers. Knapp believes that these Open Shuttles, guided by lasers, could well change the face of distribution facilities and factories over the coming years as they replace traditional lines of conveyors.

Whether wishful thinking or not, what seems far more certain is that the current economic climate will act as a catalyst for the installation of automated systems within distribution centres. That is not to say, however, that equipment suppliers are not feeling the pinch as margins are squeezed. This is why greater care should be taken when choosing a supplier  partner. Some UK-based conveyor manufacturers, for example, claim that imported conveyors all too often have after sales support that falls below expectations, service times become extended and spares higher priced, and that any modification needed results in higher than expected prices.

Roger Peart, sales and marketing manager of Vanderlande Industries, believes that this is a generalization. Long-established international suppliers, like SSI Schaefer, Knapp and Vanderlande, should not be a problem. “In respect to spares and modifications we wish to maintain a good relationship with the client for future business so it is not in our interest to inflate costs for these requirements,” says Mr Peart.

In any chosen automated conveyor investment the initial cost often takes centre stage but this is a mistake because, as with buying forklifts, purchasers should place more value on life cycle costs, believes Roger Peart. “This is a major part in justifying investment in a complex automated system or simple conveyor lines.” In addition, of course, any chosen system must meet the design criteria. This will include efficient product handling, and application of innovation to minimize capital cost while maximising payback. Above all, buyers must mitigate any inherent risks which might adversely affect their customers’ service levels.

It has been said that there are two approaches to a successful procurement of an automated system. One is to partner with a supplier and the second is to tender one’s requirements. There is, however, a third approach: choose a systems integrator familiar with all equipment types where projects are complex. The advantage of the third approach is that fresh thinking may be brought to the table which is not bound by a supplier’s offered solution based on his limited product range. The integration part is also the most difficult part where equipment from various suppliers, including software, must be integrated. A systems integrator could suggest a radically different solution for conveyor automation than the client’s scheme which would be more efficacious at meeting the client’s needs.

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