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Dynamic picking solution for seals warehouse

A unique combination of vertical picking towers, sortation conveyors, RF barcode scanners and warehouse management system has provided industrial products supplier ERIKS UK with a highly productive, adaptable and efficient order fulfilment solution at its seals warehouse in Dudley. Chess Logistics Technology integrated the solution around its Empirica application to manage all warehouse, stock and picking operations dynamically and in real time while also providing a seamless link with existing business applications.

"This highly efficient solution supports our business and manages the complete stock control and picking process so that we fulfil the maximum number of orders every day," says Peter Timbrell, Logistics Director at ERIKS UK. "It helps us provide the very high levels of information, quality of service and product availability expected by our customers."

ERIKS supplies an extensive range of industrial products and services ranging from Sealing Technology to Electro-mechanical repairs. It is a world leader, supplying over 500,000 unique industrial products with over 90 years’ experience in the production of O-rings and elastomeric seals, the manufacture and distribution of gaskets, rubber products, engineering plastics, valves and hoses as well as bearings, motors, pumps and gearboxes. The company has a dual approach of serving the OEM (original equipment manufacture) and MRO (maintenance repair operations) sectors and its customers include some of the largest aerospace, automotive and food and beverage manufacturers and countless other engineering companies.

This dual approach presents some interesting challenges to the picking operation which relies on many stock and customer-focused parameters to maintain the high level of customer service. OEM orders are reasonably predictable but MRO requires adaptability to provide an on-demand service. Some customers are unconcerned with first-in-first-out (FIFO) sourcing but require items made with a specific date range while some want items from a batch they have tested. Some want additional codes or markings applied to products. ERIKS has to meet these, and other, requirements while maintaining a high level of operational efficiency with low transaction costs. Quality and accuracy of information is vital.

At the Seals warehouse, the company stocks upwards of 12,000 product lines and orders can be for single items costing hundreds of pounds for specialist applications through to thousands of lower cost items for high volume manufacturing. Order picking has to be flexible enough to cope with both extremes and everything in between. The company despatches to an average 240 sites every night which includes deliveries despatched direct to the customer and to its own network of branches around the UK and Ireland.

Operations in the company’s previous Seals warehouse were managed by a combination of paper documentation and the knowledge and experience of employees. As many as four people worked full time on picking tasks. Although the business coped and grew significantly there was little control over picking priorities while managing batch information and traceability was laborious. There were no computer records of stock age, so pickers would not know if some orders could be fulfilled from an acceptable batch until they arrived at the pick location.

These factors, together with continued growth, led the company move to a new purpose-built Seals distribution centre which opened in Dudley during 2010. It wanted to introduce processes that would support the best possible efficiency, performance and customer service. ERIKS has employed the Empirica warehouse management system at its Halesowen industrial supplies warehouse for some time and, although it reviewed alternatives, recognised its suitability for the new operation.

"Given our experience with Empirica in integrating a number of warehouse operations and processes at the other site we knew it had what we needed to take the business forward," says Peter Timbrell. "The model reflects, as far as possible, the one that has proven so successful at our main distribution centre in Halesowen."

In the new facility, six Hänel vertical picking towers ("Lean Lifts") are positioned along the centre of the building to make full use of the 12 metre height. Stock is stored on trays which are brought down to the picking face automatically acting on instructions received directly from the WMS. Pick-to-light technology then indicates the location of the correct item. A conveyor and sortation system provided by Keymas runs from the picking face to order rework and assembly areas at the front of the building. Picking and other tasks are managed using hand-held RF terminals which issue instructions to warehouse staff and scan barcodes at various points to verify actions.

This equipment is driven by the Empirica WMS which not only sends pick instructions direct to the Lean Lifts but also prioritises and balances the picking sequence evenly across all six towers. While the operative is retrieving an item from one machine the others are transferring trays to the pick face. The picker moves from machine to machine, directed by "next task" instructions on their RF terminals. This ensures no time is wasted waiting for an item to be available and minimises the walking between machines for maximum productivity and efficiency.

"We envisaged two operatives would work three towers each," says Peter Timbrell. "But it was soon clear that one person could manage all six and they now only spend half their time on picking tasks. In the previous operation four people spent all their time on order picking."

The system recognises when complete orders cannot be fulfilled from the Lean Lifts and instead directs the warehouse team to pick directly from bulk. This avoids complexity and duplication of tasks.

Picked items are placed in a bag and a label generated by Empirica is attached. Customers’ own part numbers can be included but only relevant information is printed. This avoids the inclusion of blank lines or spaces which could lead customers to assume information is missing. The bag is placed in a bar-coded tote bin and directed through the sortation system to one of two locations. The first is for completed orders and the second for items that require additional rework prior to delivery (customising). Rework forms an increasing proportion of the total service and added value offered by ERIKS. It can include special packaging, additional spot codes or the application of holographic labels used by some customers in their own quality assurance.

The entire system is driven by a hierarchy of priorities and tasks managed dynamically and in real time by Empirica. Stock orders have a lower priority than customer orders but emergencies always take precedence. The prioritisation also ensures that orders not required to be despatched that day are held back until the next, freeing resources for those that can be delivered. Putaway and stock checking are always a lower priority which means that these tasks are only allocated when there are no outstanding orders.

"The system ensures there is always a task to do and this helps maintain the pace of work which is good for productivity," says Peter Timbrell. "During periods when we are really busy we still have flexibility."

Chess worked with Hänel’s UK distributor Industore to write the interface which directs the Lean Lifts and liaised with Keymas to source information needed to drive the sortation system. The company set up the RF network, configured the hand-held scanners and provided training to the ERIKS staff. Empirica also provides an interface between the warehouse operations and ERIKS’ ERP system to ensure a seamless and automatic transfer of information with main business software applications.

Putaway is managed with items allocated to random locations while taking into account the need to balance stock across all six picking towers. The system flags up missing critical information and forces operatives to enter the correct details before they can proceed. Automatic stock checking is configured so that operatives are asked to check stock when no picking tasks are scheduled.

"We believe we could complete eight full checks a year this way," says Peter Timbrell. "It far outweighs anything expected by our auditors.

"We are very pleased with the solution delivered by Chess and the support they have given to us during the design and implementation of the system. The result is a solution that supports the current and future business requirement.

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