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Atlet forklifts increase storage and handling operations in United Coffee warehouse

United Coffee UK has increased storage capacity by 56 percent by reconfiguring racking and introducing Atlet Forte reach trucks. Storage and handling operations have been optimised at the company’s Milton Keynes distribution centre to meet the requirements of its dramatic business growth.

"We store more and we are more efficient because we found the right trucks and rearranged the warehouse," says Ray Holland, Supply Chain and Distribution Manager at United Coffee UK. "It’s made a big difference to the business but also to the people who work here. Atlet did a fantastic job."

United Coffee UK specialises in providing coffee & coffee equipment to the foodservice & retail market in the UK & Ireland. The current managing director was the company’s eighth employee and there are now over 300 members of staff. In 2006 the business was bought by the international Drie Mollen Group. This enabled investment in the facilities, products and services that have driven the recent dramatic business growth. United Coffee UK moved to its current site in Milton Keynes in 2004 and expected these premises would provide enough capacity for at least ten years. When turnover doubled in four years warehouse operations were placed under pressure. A number of business considerations meant relocation was not a realistic option; the only alternative was to identify ways of storing more and increasing throughput in the existing building.

"The growth had a major effect on what we’re doing and we needed a solution that would last at least five years," says Ray Holland.

The number of stock lines had grown to fulfil demand for greater customer choice. More stock was sourced from overseas and delivered in containers. This presented a major challenge because, with up to five arriving each month, demand for storage fluctuated dramatically. Changes in pack sizes also meant fewer items could be stored on each pallet which led to inefficient use of capacity in terms of vertical and horizontal spacing. Items were being block stacked on the floor which led to further inefficiencies in load handling and space utilisation.

United Coffee UK considered a number of options before presenting its business case and taking the decision to change. It was clear from the start that the configuration of the existing racking was not optimised. The building has a pitched roof but the racking ran perpendicular to this, meaning some of the high level space in the middle of the building was wasted. Turning the racking through 90o offered the prospect of getting more locations into the same space. Further investigations suggested that the aisles could be narrowed from 3.2 to 2.5m which would allow additional rows of racking to be installed.

"To do this we needed a truck supplier with a workable solution," says Darren Wilcox, Logistics Manager at United Coffee UK.

The company approached four prospective lift truck suppliers for their proposals. Working with the team from United Coffee UK, Atlet assessed a number of options and used its Logistics Analyser Program to simulate various racking configurations, including narrow aisle and double deep. Double deep offered the potential to maximise storage capacity but did not support the selectivity and throughput required for this particular application. So Atlet proposed two of its Forte reach trucks which could operate in 2.5m aisles and handle full 1400kg loads to the maximum 6.3m of the highest proposed racking beam.

"Atlet was the only manufacturer that could meet our specification," says Darren Wilcox. "It was a comfort to us that they understood what we wanted to achieve and were able to suggest options. Whatever we decided, they were happy to support."

After making its decision in mid-2009 United Coffee needed the new operation to be in place for the peak Christmas season which starts during September. The only option was to do the work almost immediately and while the warehouse maintained ongoing operations. Working one section at a time the team quickly completed the work in just three weeks when it had originally expected to take six. The racking was repositioned and the beams set to new vertical spacings matched to the height of the palletised loads to optimise space and volume utilisation. Overhead lighting was repositioned to remain in line with the new aisles. The overall result was a 56 per cent increase in capacity from 1000 to 1560 locations.

"This was well above our original target and is now a complete warehouse," says Darren Wilcox. "It’s as compact as it can be."

The busy warehouse operates from 7.30 am to 6 pm five days a week. Storage locations are zoned by supplier and product to simplify the operations. Incoming pallets are checked before being authorised for putaway using one of the Forte reach trucks. Picking takes place simultaneously, with the trucks retrieving palletised loads as directed by the warehouse management system. Picked items are handled to the front of the warehouse to await loading onto one of United Coffee UK’s fleet of own delivery vehicles. Smaller orders and individual items can also be delivered by third party carrier service, enabling the company to meet its delivery commitments to customers throughout the UK & Ireland.

"With the new operation every racking position has a purpose. We have freed up floor space and each handling movement is easier which means we can fulfil more orders more quickly," says Darren Wilcox. "It’s become a selling point for the business to have an efficient warehouse and we like to show our customers around."

The two new Forte trucks were supplied by Atlet with weather cabs so that they could, when needed, operate outside to supplement a counterbalance used for vehicle loading. Although the primary reason for selecting Atlet was the manufacturer’s ability to supply trucks that could meet the precise operational requirement, a number of other factors – including training and support – were important to United Coffee UK.

Atlet builds all its warehouse trucks around just six basic chassis designs. In addition to simplifying production this means relatively few spare parts are required to complete the majority of common service and maintenance tasks. This helps Atlet’s service engineers to achieve a very high first time fix rate.

"One of the main selling points for us was the way Atlet designs its trucks around so few chassis types," says Darren Wilcox. "This minimises the number of working parts. We know that more often than not if we have to call the engineer out they will have the right spare part on their vehicle."

United Coffee UK moved from using traditional counterbalance trucks to reach trucks for the first time. It was important for the company that its staff understood the reasons for the change and bought into the process. The training offered by Atlet and the design of the trucks helped.

"It is a big change from counterbalance to reach trucks. Atlet provided training and took us through the ergonomic benefits of its trucks with the tilting and reclining seats, moving arm rests, mini steer wheel and so on," says Ray Holland. "It was a revelation to us that so much effort had gone into the design. The response from the drivers was very positive. They could see the benefits and we had buy-in from the start. This showed us we’d got it right."

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