The growing diversity of consumer products is inspiring many manufacturers to use specialized material handling equipment and facilities. Here’s what to keep in mind if you’re considering such an investment.
by Tom Andel, chief editor
Material handlers are paying more attention to demographic trends these days. Of particular interest are the “baby boomers.” First, this generation is getting more health conscious. That means there’ll be a growing hunger for higher-quality fresh and frozen foods. Boomers are also getting older. That means there’ll be greater demand for a wider variety of pharmaceuticals and convenience products.
Another trend involves all consumers. They’re getting less patient. Boomers and all their relatives want top-quality food and drugs when and where they need them — preferably under one roof.
These trends are leading to material handling challenges in many supply chains. Manual solutions in plants and warehouses with specialized material handling requirements won’t work as well any more. Regulations dictate how long employees can work in refrigerated environments. And with the growing variety of stock keeping units (SKUs) on both the drug and food sides, it’s getting harder to follow guidelines for product segregation and environmental storage requirements. That’s why automated material handling technology is being re-engineered to work in some of the most demanding environments.
“In the food industry there are many storage restrictions,” says Paul Pisarcik, senior manager at Sedlak Management Consultants in Richfield, Ohio. “You can’t put chicken above beef, and you can’t put chemicals above anything else. Today’s warehouse management systems [WMS] and control systems for automated conveyors and AS/RS are capable of maintaining those kinds of restrictive storage requirements.”
AS/RS cranes and conveyors are being equipped for frozen environments, incorporating specialized bearings and lubricants. And where people are still used in those environments, they’re increasingly using radio frequency data communication devices designed for freezers.
“In the standard frozen foods warehouse where pick lists are used, those picks are usually done in total, with no updating of records until all picks have been completed,” adds Tom Holmes, another Sedlak manager. “Ideally, a picker should be updating inventory after each pick, but all those people want to do is get out of that freezer. RF can give you better control and an audit trail, resulting in a much higher quality pick.”
“Product integrity and quality are so important to our clients that they are willing to make sure that not only are picking and storage done in the freezer and cooler, but that product staging is done there before it gets loaded on a route truck,” agrees Dale Harmelink, a consultant with Tompkins Associates, Charlotte, North Carolina. “Route trucks are now cooled before product is put in. Product integrity and quality are important, and our customers are making sure they’re building the space to be able to provide those qualities.”
Whether your product requires super-cold or super-clean handling, equipment manufacturers can help you engineer ways to minimize labor and maximize quality. Take ice cream, for example. Slight variations in temperature during its trip through the supply chain can have a drastic effect on quality. During post-production handling in some facilities, you’ll find people trying to stack loads on pallets in minus 20 degree temperatures. The alternative is to move the ice cream into a warm center where it can be palletized and then go back into the freezer. But this leads to partial thawing and re-freezing, which can have a nasty effect on texture and freshness. Still, until OSHA started mandating exposure limits in these atmospheres, manufacturers didn’t have much incentive to get people out of their freezers.
Then new service level demands and the technology to help meet them came along.
“Machinery can do a faster, cleaner job with fewer personnel issues,” says Kurt Lloyd, vice president of engineering for HK Systems, a supply chain solutions provider. “As manufacturers start selling 50 million gallons of ice cream a year, the availability of manpower and the OSHA issues make automation necessary.”
But you can’t just put a regular machine in this environment. Pneumatics have to be re-designed if they’re used at all, and special type steels and material considerations have to be made. Plastic, PVC and other material have a significantly different coefficient of thermal expansion than steel.
In other words, a material handling device built in a 70 degree environment will be a different size after a week in a blast freezer. According to Lloyd, plastic shrinks about three times faster than steel, so if you have a plastic-covered guard in the freezer, it could shrink to two-thirds the length of the steel — or it will break or split.
You also sacrifice machine speed in these environments. Equipment used in these atmospheres tends to be more complicated, and since pneumatics are not freezer friendly, you end up with more electronics on board. This calls for a higher-grade technician to maintain the equipment. Is the cost worth the gain in product quality?
“The ROI is less than a year when you figure the amount of manpower used in these facilities,” Lloyd answers.
Rick Schau, freezer maintenance supervisor for Wells’ Blue Bunny, wasn’t looking for speed when he started working with HK to put an automatic palletizer in his company’s freezer. The goal was consistent output and gradual elimination of the human factor. Wells’ Blue Bunny has 32 ice cream production machines and is in the process of interfacing a palletizer with two of them.
“We’re concentrating on our five-quart sizes for our first palletizers because these pails are our heavier products and we have two high-speed pail lines,” Schau explains. “We’re having a lot of injuries with people manually palletizing them. There are a lot of variables, like the weights, the cold and the slick floors.”
As this issue of MHM goes to press, the new palletizer has yet to prove itself in full production. Schau is still not sure how the system’s pneumatics will work at -20 Fahrenheit.
“This is the first time we’ve tried vacuum in a freezer,” he continues. “We haven’t found any vacuum system rated below -20. We’re using the vacuum for slip sheet handling. [If this doesn’t work] we may have to re-engineer the design or come up with some different material.”
HK’s Kurt Lloyd agrees that pneumatics can be a problem in a freezer, especially for product turning.
“We’ve always done turning pneumatically,” he says, “and there are eight or nine different designs we tried, all with pluses and minuses. We’re using an electronic turner here, first time it’s ever been tried. With electronics we have smaller motors that are very quiet.”
Schau is partial to the idea of using hydraulics. They worked for him in 1993 when he put an AS/RS in the freezer. The only problem was, he used a heating system for the hydraulics.
“Since we eliminated the velocity fuses and heaters and went to flow controls, we haven’t had a problem,” he says. “Velocity fuses plug up with cold oil, so we now use flow control valves and hydraulic oil that meets the specs of our temperature. We don’t have a problem running them cold.”
Wells’ Blue Bunny is also using two hydraulic vertical reciprocating conveyors (VRCs) from Intek, along with several HK scissor lifts with pop-up stops for aligning pallets on the conveyor system.
“We’re looking at working with HK to put in a lot more conveyor, which will use hydraulics,” Schau concludes.
Smooth out transitions
All the resources put into material handling in the freezer can fly out the dock door if you don’t pay as much attention to supply chain transitions. For example, refrigerated trailers can be equipped with three temperature zones. If you use the right warehouse management system (WMS), you can load the truck’s zones so they can be picked by the driver when he gets to different locations in a way that doesn’t degrade the product. James Tompkins, president of Tompkins Associates, remembers how a client used to bulk pick out of the freezer warehouse, bring the product to the 42-degree dock, pick what was needed for that truckload and return the rest to the freezer.
“If we were to suggest doing that today, the client would throw us out,” says Tompkins. “The bar has been raised very high, and the software must allow us to get that one particular portion of a frozen order delivered to the truck at the exact right time, then get the refrigerated and dry portions out there without having a 15-minute well. That’s more demanding than anything we would find in a conventional dry environment.”
Maintaining environmental control throughout an entire facility can be a waste of money. One alternative for staging sensitive material is using carousels. These enable the buffer storage of temperature- or contaminant-sensitive items without having to maintain large refrigerated or clean-room environments.
“This equipment is high density and can be horizontal or vertical,” says Ed Romaine, Remstar International. “It requires a smaller area. Vertical carousels can be refrigerated or frozen. You don’t have to build these huge chill areas, which are expensive to maintain. Our equipment is portable and modular, so you can put in a refrigerated shuttle, take it down and put it back together again in a day or two.”
To handle full and mixed pallet loads, horizontal carousels are being engineered to provide -20 degree environments for buffer storage.
In clean-room applications, electronics manufacturers are using vertical carousels during the manufacture and transfer of contaminant-sensitive wafer chips. The wafers are stored in specialized containers that can hold $1 million in components.
“If a guy drops one, it’s a heck of an oops,” Romaine says. “That’s why we built a load port system that allows you to store product in the carousel, which brings floor space savings, ergonomics and productivity into the clean room.”
Evaluate packaging andproduct
Sometimes special handling requirements apply due to packaging rather than product. Geoff Sisco, senior vice president of Gross & Associates, tells of a household goods manufacturer that used a chemical-formed foam to encase one of its products. The company was looking at building a very-narrow-aisle (VNA) high-bay facility for storage.
“When we started looking at the insurance rates and the manufacturer gave information about the packaging, it turned out the material had a higher hazard rating than Styrofoam and would require the installation of a sophisticated sprinkler system in the building,” Sisco explains. “By changing over to Styrofoam, it got a lower rating and allowed them to use ceiling sprinklers with only two levels of rack sprinklers rather than five. Over the long term it turned out to be cheaper to change the packaging.”
If you’ve recently been plunged into the world of specialized material handling, whether through a new job assignment or because your company acquired a new line of temperature- or environmentally sensitive products, Sisco offers the following pointers to make your job easier:
• If you’ve re-located to a community where regulatory groups are very strict, find a local engineer or other authority who knows how to work with these groups.
• If you’re putting material handling equipment into refrigerated or freezer environments, find out what effect these special conditions will have on product warranties. Will specialized maintenance schedules be required? Do special installation upcharges apply?
• If you’re doing a retrofit in a hazmat building, tools might have to be explosion-proof, or air-driven rather than electrically driven. That can be a cost issue.
• If you’re handling frozen, dry and iced products, you may have to buy tractor trailers with three different temperature compartments.
• Look for a WMS that can keep a product master, and from that master, zone your slotting assignments.
Paul F. O’Connell, president of Operations Concepts Inc., Cherry Hill, New Jersey, offers a few more:
• Make sure material handling equipment has been proven in the type of specialized environment you’re designing. That goes for pallet jacks, RF scanners, all the way through network cabling and connections.
“Most pallet jacks are grease lubricated, and once they’ve been in the frozen environment too long, the grease no longer lubricates,” O’Connell adds.
• Do benchmarking via site surveys.
• If you’re building a new frozen foods facility, never face your bay doors to the south because that’s where the sun will always shine, and if you’re letting heat in the building all day, your electrical bill will be sky-high. Don’t leave the coolant tower exposed to the sun either. Shelter it.
• Learn to crossdock. Every time you open the freezer door you lose money.
• For hazardous material, use a WMS capable of receiving and sending advance shipping notices and Material Safety Data Sheets. It should also be able to archive using a data server for producing audit trail reports.
Applications for specially engineered material handling equipment in cold and clean environments are multiplying, thanks to the variety of foods and consumer packaged goods entering the market every day. Potential inventory turns and equipment utilization can tell you whether any new investments in that technology should come out of your pocket or that of an experienced third-party logistics provider. MHM
Going Underground Is Cool
It costs a lot to protect warehoused food products from temperature and humidity extremes as well as pest infestation — above ground. But in the central U.S., those protections come naturally with underground warehousing. Several contract warehousing providers lease storage space in underground chambers originally carved out as a result of limestone mining in this region.