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Atlet pleases Waitrose partners

Innovative and creative solution and expert project management by Atlet has helped Waitrose boost productivity and eliminate manual battery handling at its Aylesford distribution centre. Atlet undertook the design and oversaw the entire materials handling equipment and battery change project as well as supplying a new fleet of reach trucks, order pickers, pallet transporters, counterbalance and hand pallet trucks.

“It's gone extremely well from concept to completion,” says Colin Robson, Engineering Manager at Waitrose. “We involved our people in the decision process which is very much in line with the overall John Lewis Partnership philosophy. The Atlet national accounts team supported us all the way through, gave us the right answers and delivered what they said they would, on time.

Waitrose is a long-time user of Atlet trucks at its main distribution centre in Bracknell and the two companies have formed a close working relationship. But despite its ongoing relationship with Atlet, Waitrose always tests the market for new contracts and a number of potential suppliers were invited to make their proposals.

“Atlet was not the cheapest, but the truck supplier with the lowest price could not do all that we wanted,” says Colin Robson. “We looked at the overall offer including products and service and after assessing it all, Atlet came out on top. They were very creative. The result was that we worked together, to draw up the truck specification and to design the space and battery change area to work in the most economic way for maximum efficiency.”

Part of the John Lewis Partnership and one of the UK's best-known supermarkets, Waitrose has over 180 stores across the country. The Aylesford distribution centre, which serves stores in London and the South East, was refurbished during 2007 as part of the company's ongoing development programme following recent acquisition from a rival supermarket.

Whereas the Bracknell distribution centre had grown organically, at Aylesford – although there were some constraints – it was possible to take a new approach. The roof was slightly lower and the racking aisles were narrower. But widening the aisles to Waitrose's standard specification would have involved moving sprinklers and lights making that option expensive. Atlet, working with Waitrose staff ¬ – known internally as 'Partners' because of Waitrose's unique partnership employment model – and devised a solution which met all their requirements.

To meet the constraints of the aisle width and so that Waitrose would comply with the industry GN9 safety clearance standard, Atlet recommended a specially designed version of its Forte UNS reach truck with a very small turning circle. Ultimately Waitrose specified 8 Atlet Forte UNS reach trucks, 24 Tempo PPL low level order pickers, 12 XLL ride-on powered pallet transporters, 5 Nissan counterbalance trucks and a number of hand pallet trucks to provide a comprehensive range of storage, handling and picking capabilities. Waitrose has also standardised on powered pallet transporters with 3000kg minimum capacity to support flexible handling of multiple pallets and picking cages.

“This gives us the flexibility to cope with any combination of loads,” says Colin. “Atlet had the solution , whereas most of the other suppliers we approached couldn't supply what we needed.”

A major factor in the decision to work with Atlet was innovation in the battery change area of the warehouse. Atlet has installed a semi-automatic Fast Track Powerplus 'powerbed' system for changing reach trucks batteries and a Transfer Track system for order pickers and pallet transporters, as well as a highly effective battery management system. This works in conjunction with the 'intelligent' diagnostic capabilities of the batteries to oversee every aspect of utilisation.

“We recommended a battery management system to ensure good rotation,” says Jon Wickett, Atlet's account manager for the Waitrose contract. “Drivers now do their own battery changes, and with the battery management system there is no danger that any of the batteries will get over-used. This has saved Waitrose the cost of a dedicated battery change team.”

Batteries are allocated in strict rotation so that the best available unit, with the most charge, is always used. This overcomes the potential problem of truck drivers taking the nearest battery regardless of its true state of charge. Battery utilisation is spread more evenly so that none gets heavier usage than the others. A large wall-mounted display indicates which battery should be used and sounds an alarm if the wrong one is taken.

Waitrose also wanted to introduce more efficient battery changing so that staff would not have to lift units manually. Order picker and powered pallet transporter batteries are changed using Atlet's simple but effective Transfer Track system.

In the charging area the depleted battery is rolled off the truck onto a trolley that incorporates a roller platform. The fresh battery is rolled from the same trolley onto the truck. The platform can be adjusted to the correct height for the specific truck and the entire operation is quick, effortless and involves no lifting.

Reach truck battery changing with the Fast Track Powerplus “powerbed” system means that batteries are arranged either side of an aisle mounted on adjustable roller platforms. When a change is required, the reach truck drives into the aisle and its battery is transferred onto a free charging position using powered rollers driven by small electric motors in the truck's chassis, with power supplied by an external source. A fully charged battery is pulled into position on the truck simultaneously and the entire operation is completed in around one minute.

Unlike reach trucks made by many of the other major manufacturers, which often require batteries to be lifted in and out of position with a hoist, the Atlet design allows simple roll-on, roll-off exchange which is inherently simpler and safer.

“Atlet's battery changing solution was the simplest and quickest, especially for reach trucks,” says Colin Robson. “With other systems it can take 10 minutes to change a battery and that adds up to a lot of pallet movements. With our old system it used to take up to five minutes but the time saved is now around four minutes for each truck. Across the fleet that adds up to a lot of extra pallets moved.

“We've been looking for something like this for some time. This is all about us looking after our Partners. It's removed the whole manual handling issue, it looks slick and is simple. It's really impressed the Partners.”

For practicality separate battery charge and change facilities have been installed in the ambient and chilled chambers of the warehouse. This avoids the need for trucks to enter areas with differing environments to change their batteries.

Many of the new facilities and processes introduced at Aylesford are the result of a 'cost down' programme that Waitrose and the Atlet team have implemented over the past two years. This has assessed all materials handling operations, using Bracknell as a model, to identify potential cost savings. For example, the programme identified the time and cost of all service outages. This resulted in the timing of maintenance services being changed to fit better with warehouse operations and eliminate unscheduled disruptions. Servicing is now carried out during quieter periods with the service engineer visiting the site daily at predetermined times. Atlet continues to respond to emergencies on a call-out basis.

Another result of the programme has been a better understanding of how drivers use their trucks. This allowed Waitrose to request modifications to performance parameters such as acceleration and deceleration, programmed using the trucks' on-board computers, to make subtle changes to overall cycle times. A trial of safety cameras on reach trucks led Waitrose to roll this equipment out to its entire fleet. A key outcome has been to empower drivers to focus on their individual ownership of, and responsibility for, truck operations.

“Because we had done this we had confidence to move ahead on the new site,” says Colin Robson, “In a world where truck technology seems to be converging, Atlet takes the lead in the competition of ideas and solutions. They helped us to see that it's the life cycle cost that is most important.”

Waitrose specified a demanding timeframe for the introduction of the new equipment. Deliveries were scheduled for specific days and times over a three month period in mid-2007 to minimise disruption to ongoing operations. Atlet brought in a specialist project manager to oversee the transition and this proved to be a highly effective approach. The batteries were installed before truck deliveries commenced.

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