RFID is a healthy option for Bunzl

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Following a review of the materials handling operation at its Leicester distribution centre, healthcare supplies specialist Bunzl has replaced its existing fleet of VNA order pickers with three Jungheinrich EKX 513 Kombis. The new trucks are equipped with state-of-the-art RFID technology that will enable Bunzl's warehouse management system to automatically guide them to the right location in the aisles at all times, thereby maximising operational efficiency.

Bunzl supplies a comprehensive range of disposable healthcare consumables products such as gloves, aprons, bandages, facemasks, gowns etc - to the healthcare sector including hospitals, retirement and nursing homes and doctors' surgeries and clinics.

The Leicester facility supplies clients such as hospitals and other health care centres from Oxford to Sheffield and the previous fleet of order pickers in operation at the store had grown tired and were no longer able to keep pace with the high throughput levels at the facility.

"We clearly needed to invest in new materials handling equipment and processes," says Bunzl's operations director, Mike Parsonage.

"We put the contract out to tender and were very impressed with the kind of productivity gains that the Jungheinrich products offered."

The RFID warehouse navigation unit which is built in to Bunzl's new truck has been designed to enable the operator to receive picking instructions from the company's warehouse management system. Once the instructions have been transmitted, the operator simply accepts the command via a terminal and the warehouse management system  automatically guides the truck to the location in which the goods are stored. The truck travels via the shortest route and at the optimal speed to ensure that energy consumption is minimised.  

The operator needs only to engage the safety controls on the truck and can then relax while the truck is directed to the right spot within the aisle. The truck commences its semi-automatic approach to the storage location and as soon as the correct location has been reached, a light on the side of the truck signals to the driver whether he has to pick the order from the left or right. The result is a considerable improvement in picking accuracy as the operator cannot go to the wrong location and picking mistakes are, therefore significantly reduced.

Very narrow aisle (VNA) order pickers have, traditionally, been guided by magnets buried in the warehouse floor to initiate control of the trucks. However, such systems do not offer the flexibility, safety and operational efficiency benefits that RFID transponders bring.

The RFID transponders used to guide the new order pickers are no bigger than the size of a thumbnail and are quickly and have been inserted into the floor within the aisles of Bunzl's Leicester site.  

An important feature of the system for Bunzl was the fact that the RFID system offers a number of important safety benefits. For instance the transponders can sense if the truck is approaching the end of an aisle or a transfer aisle within the racking and will slow the truck's speed accordingly. The truck's travel speed will also be optimized to suit the standard of the floor over which it is travelling for example if a part of the warehouse floor is uneven, the truck's speed will be reduced automatically. In addition, if, when travelling with the operator platform raised, the truck is approaching a height obstacle likely to endanger the operator the truck is brought to a controlled stop. Furthermore, if the operator attempts to raise the platform to a height likely to bring him into collision with, say, the roof of the facility or some other object, the lift function cuts out.

To minimise disruption for Bunzl , the new trucks were delivered and installed over a weekend and the RFID system is expected to go live later this year once the company's warehouse management system has been upgraded.

"We are already benefiting from increased throughputs, lower running costs and higher productivity,"  says Mike Parsonage. "Furthermore, all the operators have commented on the better working environment in the comfort cab and the smooth ergonomic controls."

Bunzl has been so impressed with the performance of the new RFID equipped Kombi's that is has introduced the trucks at its other stores at Manchester, Enfield, Bristol and Ireland.

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