Automation paves the way for ifm’s success

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Since its foundation in 1969, ifm, based in Essen, Germany, has developed, produced and sold sensors, controllers and systems for industrial automation worldwide.

The company has over 5500 employees, with around 700 working in research and development (R&D) and 3800 based in Germany. In 2013, it achieved a turnover of € 630 million and this had grown to more than € 720 million in 2015. Essen is home to its new 6,200m2 worldwide distribution centre, which supplies the company's distribution network in over 70 countries.

Turning challenges into opportunities

ifm's ambition is to develop into an integrated provider of hardware, IT and services, which through the course of Industry 4.0 will help companies with the maintenance and monitoring of their machines. However, the company recently faced a number of challenges in realising its growth potential. One of the challenges was that its old warehouse was too small to handle the group's next phase of development. Order processing was predominantly carried out manually at the site and the number of existing storage locations was no longer sufficient for the constantly increasing number of products.

Warehouse staff worked from picking lists and RF terminals in determining what products to select from shelves and flow racks. This was a labour-intensive method, with picking errors and relatively low operator performance not uncommon. Within the confines of the old warehouse, it was simply not possible for ifm to increase its packaging output. In addition, the inefficient manner of picking goods did not match ifm's image as a company at the cutting edge of technological innovation.

New home, new horizons

ifm's solution was to move to a new location in which a future-proof, automated solution could be implemented. In January 2015, ifm selected Vanderlande to help it plan for – and realise – a new solution to overcome its logistic challenges.

The two organisations worked closely during the initial phases to develop a solution based on Vanderlande's ADAPTO system. This is a 3D solution that ensures easy access to around 8000 different products in 23,320 locations at all times. It comprises: a racking structure across ten aisles with an integrated shuttle track system; 25 multidirectional shuttles; and seven lifts that allow the shuttles to move between rack levels and system exits/entries.

Each shuttle can reach every location in the system, keeping service levels at a maximum. Maintenance platforms with additional staircases also allow quick operator access for fast troubleshooting if and when required. This is also supported by a spare parts package, as well as a maintenance and hotline contract (to follow). ADAPTO performs independently of the number of SKUs and order size, and maintains a high level of control and shortened lead times. In addition, it can change rapidly to match varying business requirements, and represents a favourable ROI. "We preferred a 'hybrid' system, which combines goods-to-person and person-to- goods technologies," explained ifm's Managing Director Thorben Petersen. "ADAPTO is an excellent solution for moving goods to the operator, but for faster moving items, we chose a Pick-to-Light system, in which the operator moves to the goods. This combined approach is a perfect match, and its flexibility and scalability are two of the key features."

The optimum process

The process begins at the receiving stage, when trucks deliver pallets of goods from either ifm's production facility in south Germany (daily), or the company's other manufacturing plants in Poland, Singapore and the USA (less frequently). Additional deliveries are also received every day from different couriers.

At the ergonomic workstations, pallets are raised to an optimum height and operators position the individual cartons on trays and scan these on to the system. The cartons are filled with either one product or different items spread across four compartments. If the barcode is positioned on the outside of the carton, this indicates that only one product type is contained inside. If there are multiple products, the operator scans the four compartments internally in a clockwise direction. In this way, the system knows the exact layout of the compartments, which is vital when it comes to the picking stage. The cartons are moved down a conveyor and into a lift, which connects them to another conveyor. This feeds the new stock on to one of the shuttles, which carries it quickly to an available location within the racking.

There are two optional destinations when a tray is recalled by the system and leaves ADAPTO again via one of the shuttles: the fast movers (top 250 products) as replenishment for the flow racks directly connected to ADAPTO; or the slow movers for order-related picking at the goods-to-person workstations (CPS).

ifm utilises four types of cartons – the largest (600 x 400 x 200mm) is used for both shipping and storage on site – and three smaller varieties for shipping only. The numbers of each shipping carton required are assembled via a fully automated carton erector. These are automatically labelled and either transported to the flow racks or the CPS workstations. The cartons required for order picking are 'married' to an order on their way to the designated flow racking. With Pick-to-Light, operators at the three zone-pick workstations can select from 300 channels through the 'pick-pack' procedure. The barcode on the carton is scanned and the operator is advised of the direction for locating each product, which is more accurately indicated by a light. ADAPTO delivers the cartons in the correct sequence for each of the three goods-to- person compact-pick workstations. The sequence is built within the three-dimensional shuttle cube, which means that an extensive installation of loops – found in conventional systems – can be omitted.

Cost efficiencies

ADAPTO is also providing ifm with a range of other benefits. The cost efficiencies are significant as, in addition to the optimised storage density and maximum system availability, there is a better return on the investment should the structure of the business change. "The current system is set up for 800 shipping cartons per hour, so with that level of technology at our disposal, we can comfortably reach our 2026 turnover target," said Petersen. "The biggest benefit to us is that we can copy this design to other warehouse locations in the world, in fast-growing markets. It is therefore the blueprint for the development of these sites and the springboard to offer this solution to other markets."

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