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Logistics solutions supplier KNAPP UK demonstrates new technology at visitor event

Logistics solutions supplier KNAPP opened its doors to customers, prospects and press from the UK recently in its Month of Visitors Event (MOVE 09) at the group’s headquarters near Graz, Austria.

Following the success of a similar event in 2003, KNAPP organised an even bigger ‘open house’ event this time, welcoming some 400 guests from around the world over the month-long programme. As well as hearing about KNAPP’s philosophy and seeing its technology working in the company’s state-of-the-art showroom, visitors were also treated to a flavour of the traditional hospitality of the Styria region in which KNAPP is located.

Explains Craig Rollason, Head of Sales & Marketing for KNAPP UK Ltd, "There’s just no substitute for seeing at first hand how the KNAPP organisation is structured, meeting our experts and literally getting to grips with our systems. We’re delighted with the feedback we’ve had from our visitors – both clients and journalists – from the UK and hope to repeat this successful formula in the future."

New innovations
In the company’s showroom, visitors witnessed a number of KNAPP technologies working seamlessly together including an OSR 32 storage system with a new-style ergonomic picking station, the ultra-fast Speeder-System ASRS, an A-frame autopicker and various picking solutions including voice-directed picking and RF systems. Attracting most interest was KNAPP’s latest development, the KiSoft VISION optically guided picking system. This revolutionary order picking technology, which was previewed at CeMAT last year, guides pickers to each required pick location using special software that superimposes virtual information – such as arrow symbols – directly in the visual field of the operator via a head-mounted display. "This technology is still in the development phase," explains Craig Rollason, "but the final tool will be similar in weight and design to regular glasses." The goods to be picked are optically highlighted and an integrated camera reads barcodes, lot numbers and serial numbers to confirm the pick without any further human intervention. "Accuracy is higher than with voice systems," adds Craig Rollason, "and the system is expected to be available next year." Visitors also enjoyed a visit to KNAPP’s 3D cinema, in which a joystick-controlled flight can be taken around a simulated state-of-the-art warehouse packed with KNAPP systems.

Universal shuttle concept
Senior managers from KNAPP presented the group’s key warehouse concepts at the present time. These include the universal shuttle and the error-free warehouse. The universal shuttle concept is based on minimising the number of different technologies used around the warehouse. This has a whole range of benefits including a manageable number of components, high reliability and redundancy, a shorter start-up phase, lower maintenance costs and total system scalability. The bedrock of the shuttle concept is KNAPP’s OSR (Order, Storage & Retrieval) system, which combines shuttle-based storage with pick-to-light stations. "The OSR has been exceptionally well received by the market," says Craig Rollason, "and we’ve sold about 100 systems now. It’s perfect for high pick rate, small orders, with the system achieving six times the rate of totes in/out than an ASRS, while using less than 10% of the energy consumption. The system also has about 20% less footprint for the same number of locations, compared to an ASRS." The OSR product range is continually expanding, with OSR 15, 32 and 50 models now available (handling up to 15, 32 or 50 kg), double-deep configurations possible and a new, twin-lift version soon to be available. "The OSR is ideal for returns handling too," adds Craig Rollason, "making the system very attractive for e-fulfilment operations."

Error-free warehouse
The other key platform for KNAPP innovation at present is the concept of the error-free warehouse. Picking accuracy is universally desired but is now also becoming a legal requirement. Some of KNAPP’s US pharmaceutical customers that are fulfilling direct orders face a régime of ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ in terms of misdelivery of controlled substances, with the threat of the whole warehouse being closed down making accuracy absolutely vital. Explains Craig Rollason, "Although lot tracking is not yet a legal requirement in pharmaceutical wholesale in the UK – although it is in veterinary wholesale – it is likely to become law at some point. Lot tracking is common in Eastern Europe and will be come a legal requirement in France in 2011." KNAPP is employing a whole host of strategies to work towards the error-free warehouse. While some elements are well documented – such as the Cubiscann measuring system to obtain accurate product data – others are subject to ongoing innovation. For example, advances in picking technology – including KNAPP’s new KiSoft VISION system – and ergonomics, including the integration of user-friendly materials such as wood and cushioned fascias, are feeding into the error-free warehouse concept.

Strategic plans
As well as showing its latest solutions at the MOVE 09 event, KNAPP took the opportunity to present the philosophy of innovation behind them. In a remarkably frank interview, KNAPP’s Executive Vice President, Gerald Hofer, detailed the group’s financial and market position, as well as its strategic plans in response to market trends. Despite sales revenue in the year 08/09 of EUR 239 million – a 22% increase on the previous year and a record figure for the fifth successive year – KNAPP is not complacent about its position. "Innovation is key," says Gerald Hofer. "We’ve been investing 12% of turnover in R&D over the past few years and we have no plans to change this."

The group’s ability to weather the global downturn has been rooted in the source of its sales: some 65-70% of business is done with existing clients, which gives the group a level of stability envied by others. The pharmaceutical market is a core source of orders, accounting for over 50% of turnover in 08/09. In fact, for the pharmaceutical wholesale firms in Europe that have invested in logistics automation, 80% of their systems have been supplied by KNAPP.

The KNAPP group, which has 14 sales and service offices and is represented in 32 countries around the globe, employs a total of 1700 people, some 1200 of whom work at the site in Hart-bei-Graz. "We know there is true value in having our skills and resources in one place," says Gerald Hofer. "Our site here is home to the R&D, manufacturing, quality management and project sales functions. We’re also constructing a brand-new building that will accommodate some 350 employees from our software division. Some of our competitors have moved their metalworking operations to Eastern Europe but KNAPP has no plans to take this road."

Software growth
Software is a key area of growth for KNAPP. "Of course, software should underpin the business of any system integrator," admits Gerald Hofer, "and here at KNAPP we have about 75 employees who are focused purely on software development. However, we’re also investing in software in response to the market," he continues. "In the recessionary climate, we’ve been working with customers to help them sweat their assets and voice-directed picking has been a particularly useful low-investment, fast-payback tool here. This has brought in a lot of software business and, given that we were already delivering some 35 WMS solutions a year, we’ve actually struggled to recruit sufficient staff. We’re currently taking on 7 new software project engineers per month."

Gerald Hofer is proud of KNAPP’s reputation as an innovator in warehouse technology. Certainly, KNAPP was first to develop a number of market-leading technologies, such as the A-frame and the OSR. "Our philosophy is to develop products in-house and integrate them, rather than integrating products from companies taken over by acquisition. That’s not to say that we’re not considering some acquisition, but that would only be small- or medium-sized companies and solely for technological reasons. Basically, we are focused on organic growth. With a promising order book," concludes Gerald Hofer, "we’re predicting 15% growth next year."

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