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BMW stores more in less space

A new Atlet Tergo URF narrow aisle swivel reach truck has helped BMW to increase storage densities by 40 per cent and improve load selectivity in the body panel picking area at its central parts distribution warehouse in Bracknell.

The picking area was reconfigured with a decreased footprint to provide additional space for adjacent order picking and assembly areas and alleviate pressure for major changes in the warehouse such as extending the building or utilising off-site facilities. The Atlet URF was specified on the strength of its versatility, manoeuvrability, superior ergonomics and the universally enthusiastic rating it received from BMW's truck operators.

“If you can put off investing in a new warehouse by utilising your facility more effectively, then it's well worth doing,” says Martin Douglas, Parts Distribution Manager at BMW UK.

A subsidiary of one of the world's leading luxury car manufacturers, BMW UK has around five per cent of the UK car market comprising annual sales of approximately 100,000 of the BMW marque and 40,000 of the new MINI. Its Bracknell parts distribution centre makes overnight deliveries of around 19,000 order lines each day to 173 dealers throughout the UK and Ireland. Any of 52,000 items stocked in the warehouse can be delivered to a dealer overnight if ordered before 5pm. The company can also supply parts within two days for virtually any BMW ever made by calling on over 200,000 components available from its main manufacturing and parts operations in Germany.

The operation has grown significantly in the past five years as BMW has extended its range and integrated parts distribution for the MINI. The warehouse has moved to six day round-the-clock operations to help cope with higher volumes but there has still been increased pressure on capacities and utilisation of space.

“Each new model generates upwards of 1500 new parts for us to stock,” says Martin Douglas. “We need to store more parts than ever before.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the body panel storage and picking area of the warehouse. Body panels, bonnets and bumpers can take up a lot of space if not stored carefully and, while it has established efficient techniques for transporting and storing these items on special packs, pallets and stillages, BMW recognised it could improve the picking operation. The company formerly block-stacked loads alongside wide aisles where they could be handled by a conventional reach truck.

The reconfiguration of this zone followed one of the regular reviews undertaken by the company to identify areas for improvement so that it can handle ever-increasing volumes. These are important considerations as the business continues to grow because the company is deferring the need to invest in more floor space by using its existing facilities more efficiently.

“We showed that if we moved to racking we could increase the storage capacity by 40 per cent and make picking more efficient,” says Martin Douglas. “With a narrow aisle configuration we could get an extra storage aisle but this meant we would need a new sort of truck.”

Analysis showed that reducing the 3m block stacking aisle to a 2m narrow aisle with racking would allow the installation of 550 pallet locations on four levels. The new racking area had to take up no more floor space than the original block stacking operation to avoid any encroachment on other parts of the warehouse. It was configured with three narrow aisles and one slightly wider one specifically for bulkier bonnets. The resulting area was smaller than the previous configuration, releasing a five-metre strip that is now being used for despatch tasks.

A key requirement was that the racking and the truck could accommodate the special 1.8 x 1.2m cages used throughout BMW for transporting and storing large components. The adoption of narrow aisle racking meant that conventional reach trucks could not be used. The company investigated a number of different solutions including narrow aisle stackers, man-rising combination stacker pickers and articulated stackers. After evaluating the options and visiting a number of reference sites with various suppliers the company selected the Atlet URF swivel reach truck.

“We looked at man rising trucks but could not justify the additional cost for this application and the flexible trucks were too big,” says Martin Douglas.

The forks on the Atlet Tergo URF swivel reach truck can rotate through 180 degrees so that loads can be stacked to either side of the aisle without turning the whole truck round. The truck can operate in aisles as narrow as 1.6m and handle loads up to 1500kg. BMW specified a larger than normal fork carriage so that truck could handle its special picking cages. The company also specified a restricted mast height so that the truck can pass through low doors into another part of the site in case it is needed there for temporary duties.

“We all work together on deciding what to buy,” says Martin Douglas. “It's important for us to take the views of the operators into account. If they are involved with the decision and like the truck they will be more inclined to look after it.”

When BMW UK selected its previous Atlet trucks – which have now been operating at Bracknell for more than four years – the drivers and operators had been involved in the selection process and this policy was maintained for the latest acquisition. Drivers visited reference sites and Atlet's demonstration facility in Thame to see the truck working.

“The Atlet URF was the best truck and all the drivers loved it,” says Les Brook, maintenance manager with responsibility for lift trucks and other handling equipment at the company. “It was the most compact and manoeuvrable truck we saw. The turning circle is critical because we don't have a lot of space and every millimetre is critical. It's a big truck that can turn round on a sixpence.”

The Atlet URF uses rail guidance because this option is simpler and less expensive than wire guidance. The use of low profile rails and cage stands ensured that the truck could handle loads at ground level without obstruction. The truck is used to handle the large cages in and out of the racking and for replenishment tasks to transfer a cage from a storage location to the picking face. The majority of picking takes place at ground level using Atlet TPL Select low-level order pickers although the storage is organised so that identical products are kept in the location immediately above the cage being worked.

Although the URF is the newest truck in the warehouse, Atlet has supplied BMW UK with a number of trucks in recent years, including OPS man rising order pickers as well as the TPL Select low-level order pickers. One of the OPSs is fitted with a specially designed extended walk-through platform which provides the operator with a long picking face to either side of the aisle, ideal for accessing bulky items. A second OPS was supplied with a shorter mast so that it could enter a lift that travels between ground and first floor in the warehouse.

“The Atlet man rising trucks have helped us to utilise higher racking levels for picking rather than storage,” says Martin Douglas. “The low level order pickers were the cheapest and the best.”

Like all Atlet warehouse trucks the URF has been designed with safe, efficient and ergonomic operation in mind. Interlocked push button and mini steer wheel controls enable precise and secure operation while the operator has excellent all-round vision of the truck, forks, load and racking. “The ergonomics are excellent and it's a very user friendly truck,” says Les Brook. “If you can drive a reach truck you can drive one of these.”

Atlet's unique approach to design and development means that all trucks in its range are based on just six chassis types to provide a high degree of standardisation and quality assured modularity. The URF, for example, is built around the same chassis as the company's award winning Tergo reach truck. From common modules Atlet can manufacture thousands of variants to consistent quality and high technical and ergonomic standards. The entire product range is based on fewer than 3,500 different components and this has a major impact on reliability and servicing.

“Downtime is virtually nil,” says Les Brook. “The service is good and the engineer usually has the part on the van.”

“We don't need to cancel lines because of the trucks,” adds Martin Douglas. “I never hear about the trucks going wrong.”

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