What’s an AS/AR implementation project really like? This Q&A reveals tips and unexpected challenges when switching from manual to automated.
Warehouse automation technology is gaining traction in the U.S. to strengthen supply chains, reduce reliance on labor, and manage peak seasons and unforeseen events more efficiently. However, companies are still relatively slow to adopt and invest in an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS).
Last year, the anyseals Brecksville, Ohio, location completely transformed its warehouse operations with a new WMS and AutoStore system. Design World sat down with Tina Schulte, VP of operational excellence at anyseals, who led the project to success. Schulte graciously shared her story in a Q&A session for others to learn what an AS/RS implementation can entail.
What did the anyseals warehouse look like before AutoStore?
Tina Schulte: The warehouse was completely manual when I started in December 2022. The company chose Kardex and the AutoStore solution and hired me as the project manager. We started in December and went live in October, so it was a very quick 10 months.
When I first started, we had an overabundance of inventory right after COVID-19. As we were going live with AutoStore, we were also going live with a new warehouse management system (WMS) software. So, we needed the inventory received and in our current ERP system to transfer it to the new WMS accurately.
We got everything into the system the way it needed to be, but in doing so, we had to find room within our warehouse for our inventory. We used every square inch and every corner of the building and created locations to store everything.
How did you prepare the facility for AutoStore?
Schulte: Again, the warehouse was completely manual, with racking everywhere. We put pallets wherever we could, and we had our “silver shelf inventory,” as we call it, with eight levels of shelving. Since most of our product is very small, we had four boxes stacked eight high in one section, and there were 25,000 boxes on those racks. However, we learned the AutoStore solution was to be installed there. So, we cleaned out another area of the building, took down the silver shelves, and relocated them because we still needed to use them for our pickings.
The AutoStore takes up about a 10,000-square-foot area, which had to be completely cleared out and cleaned. The floor had to be extremely flat to ensure the grid was flat to the floor so the bins wouldn’t get stuck. So, we hired a company to remediate the floor for us. While they remediated the floor, we had it completely cleared and taped off to prevent anyone from entering.
And then it failed. The flatness failed, and we had to do more remediation. In our project plan, once the floor was remediated, we had about a month to lay out all the inventory and receive it. Everything was very time-sensitive to ensure we stayed on track. So, they returned to remediate the floor some more, and it worked. We did all our receiving, got our pallets received, and then had to clear the floor again.
Were there any other surprises or unplanned tasks?
Schulte: The AutoStore was built while we worked with other vendors. We had to get electrical to support what was going into the AutoStore. We had to get data run for the pick ports because each pick port needed its own data.
We had a huge ceiling fan right above the AutoStore, so we had to move it because we didn’t want it to hit anyone on the grid. We also had skylights above the AutoStore and hired roofers to cover them to avoid the risk of leaking.
Then, we found out about our fire suppression requirements. We needed a fire pump, which was pretty expensive and something we didn’t expect. We also had to get a VESDA alarm system for very early smoke detection. If there’s any smoke in the air, it triggers an alarm, the robots huddle together, and the AutoStore stops. We spent a lot of time and effort making sure that got done in our timeframe. We started talking to the fire suppression people in January 2023, and it was the last thing completed in the project. The final pump inspection occurred the week we went live, so it took the full 10 months to get the fire suppression done.
But we had a great group of contractors help us get ready. The electricians pretty much lived here for three months. We had a construction company build the pump room, and they were always here, as were the fire suppression people. So, we grew great friendships and spent a lot of time together, supporting them and giving them what they needed to ensure the work got done well and on time. Having those people to work with is essential to ensure success.
The Kardex team started building about the week after the Fourth of July and was done toward the end of August. The grid was built quickly, and the people were here every day. The whole process and everything we’ve done with Kardex has been a great experience.
How was the experience for anyseals employees?
Schulte: There was a lot of skepticism from employees while the machine was being built. They’d say, “There’s no way this machine will be faster than us. We’re so fast. We’re going to be better than the machine.” Now that it’s installed, they’re trying to get as much stuff into it as possible because it makes picking much easier and faster. So, it’s the flip-flop of people fighting it initially and then loving it at the end.
Overall, though, it was exciting for them. It was also quite tiresome, but we made it through. It’s important to have a great group of people to work with and engage your employees so they understand what’s happening and that they’re a big part of it. There was a lot of change and work to get through, but everybody’s excited about it now.
What are some other tips or lessons learned?
Schulte: Project costs are obviously a big factor, and with projects of this size, you usually have a lot of change requests. We went slightly over budget with only three change requests. For example, in the middle of the project, we decided to add an extra pick port before everything shipped from outside the country because it would be cheaper than ordering it later. There are also seismic towers that hold the grid in place. We planned on having six but needed eight to make the structure safe and sturdy. So, there was another slight change, but nothing shocking.
During the first two weeks of September, Kardex inducted all the bins. Our AutoStore has 20,000 bins, so we had truckloads coming in, which took about seven days. We can handle 5,000 more bins, so our AutoStore can hold 25,000 bins in total.
We went live in early October, two weeks ahead of schedule. The WMS went live first, then the AutoStore. From then, we started filling the bins, which can be challenging. It’s important to schedule the time and appropriate people to do the inbound and get inventory into the AutoStore. It’s hard to completely test until you have a good amount of inventory in the AutoStore. So, in the beginning, set up time to get as much inventory in there as possible. And if people are doing outbound, make sure you have people that can do inbound, too.
How’s the system running now?
Schulte: We have 100% uptime. The WMS interaction with the system had a few little glitches, so good, strong communication between the interfaces is important. The WMS must speak to the AutoStore to ensure you successfully integrate the two.
Now, we’re starting to put more inventory in and can look at our daily picks from the overstock and AutoStore areas. With the AutoStore, the average time for a bin to come to us is eight seconds. Nobody could go through the warehouse and pick something in eight seconds.
Our business is unique because we don’t just grab products from the bin, and then the bin goes away. We grab a bag from the bin, place the parts on the scale, and weigh it to ensure we have the correct quantity. The scale and WMS are integrated, so the WMS knows the weight of each item and how many are needed to ensure the correct amount for each customer. So, the bin comes down, we take a bag from the bin, put the parts on the scale, then put the leftovers back into the bin, and the bin goes away.
Previously, our manual picks could take up to 15 minutes per pick because we had to get a lift truck to pull down the pallet, find the box on the pallet, and bring the bag to the scale counters. That could take five to 15 minutes, depending on the inventory’s location. Once we weigh and count the customer’s parts requested, we label and send it to the shipping department. In the past, the parts we put back into the bin had to be returned to wherever we got it from. Now, we just leave the parts in the bin, and the bin goes away. So, we’re saving tons of time on the put-away as well.
One of the big things I learned is that the WMS is the brain, and the robots do whatever the WMS tells them to do. For example, when we have rush orders, we can’t wait to get through 200 picks before getting the rush order out. So, we learned how to prioritize within the WMS to ensure orders are shipped on time. Another recent challenge, as we’ve been putting inventory in the AutoStore, is when we call a bin down, we have another bin going out with that same inventory. So, who wins? Does it go inbound or outbound? It should always be outbound to ensure it gets to the customer, but we’ve been working through those learning factors. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been interesting to learn.
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Filed Under: Warehouse automation, ENGINEERING SOFTWARE, Robotics • robotic grippers • end effectors