An Empty Pallet Return System has been developed by BITO Storage Systems at its Meisenheim headquarters in Germany to address significant health and safety issues facing order pickers in warehouses and distribution centres, particularly the growing number of female order pickers. The system was unveiled at the CeMAT 2008 exhibition in Hanover.
In a normal pallet return system forming part of a dynamic storage solution for order picking, once a pallet is empty it is lifted from the lane by the picker and carried to an empty pallet station, often located every tenth lane within a dynamic order picking system, where it is stacked manually at the pedestrian picking face of the system. Given that empty pallets weigh between 15-20 kg and may have to be lifted over the head of the picker to reach the top of a six-feet high stack, this clearly presents a difficult manual handling scenario, particularly for the growing population of female order pickers.
The health and safety issues are compounded further as the stack of empty pallets then has to be carried back on a roller conveyor in the lane to the replenishment face allowing the forklift truck to remove it. This is due to the risk of a high, freestanding stack toppling into the forklift aisle when the stack comes to a stop, particularly if the pallets have been stacked haphazardly. There is also a risk of pallets falling in the lane of the dynamic storage system.
With BITO's new Empty Pallet Return System, at no point in the process does the picker have to physically pick up the pallet. Once the pallet is empty, the picker uses a grab handle, to avoid bending over excessively, to grab the far end of the empty pallet at the front of the lane. With this he, or she, pulls the pallet so that it stands upright on a roller bed at the foot of the lane. The picker then simply slides the pallet along the roller bed to the Empty Pallet Return Stacking System where it docks into a bracket mechanism. This allows the picker to swing the pallet down gently, without any strain, so that the pallet sits back horizontally on the bed of rollers in the empty pallet return lane.
The system then takes over and automatically carries the pallet back towards the stack that is being created at the forklift (replenishment) face of the Dynamic order picking system. The whole stack of pallets is clamped in a bracket and raised sufficiently to allow the pallet to roll into position beneath it before the stack is gently brought back down on top of the pallet adding to the accurate stack.
The net effect
“From health and safety surveys it was found that pickers were taking time off work due to back injuries linked to such processes so BITO decided to set up a study group to develop a solution,” says Ed Hutchison, MD at BITO Storage Systems.
“With this system the picker does not have to lift the pallet at all, they simply guide the pallet to the Empty Pallet Return lane, then the system does the rest,” he comments. “The stack can be much higher because it has been stacked accurately and it does not depend upon the reach of the picker. Furthermore, because the stack is created at the forklift truck face, rather than the pedestrian face there is no movement of that stack along the conveyor reducing the risk of it toppling over.”