Automation Pushes the Envelope

Automation Pushes the Envelope

Every year, Cox Target Media mails more than 19 billion coupons in 500 million of the familiar blue, #10 Valpak envelopes. Faced with rising variable costs and looming capacity constraints, Cox managers could see a rapidly approaching day when the company’s growth would overtake its production capacity.

“Ultimately, our business started to grow in such a way that, the more we grew, the more inefficient we became,” says David Fox, vice president of manufacturing for the Largo, Fla.-based company. Coupons had to be manually handled and moved up to a dozen times before they left the plant. “Every time we added volume, we added people to offset the volume.”

A Showcase Facility
Situated on the I-275 corridor leading into St. Petersburg, Fla., the 470,000-square foot plant is built around several core manufacturing processes: digital transfer printing technology, printing coupon signatures instead of individual coupons and wrapping the envelopes around the coupons rather than inserting them. To automate the material flow between each of these processes and the buffer storage areas, Cox called on the expertise of Daifuku America Corp.’s Factory and Distribution Automation division in Salt Lake City.

Daifuku’s rack-supported building AS/RS is a multilevel automated warehouse, in which the rack is integrated into the building. Here, a mini load crane is being installed in the rackbuilt portion of the system.

“To make the whole thing work, they had to tie in the movement of the material throughout the operation to realize the benefit of the manufacturing automation,” says Barry Desprez, Daifuku director of sales and marketing.

“It’s not like you have one starting point and one ending point. There’s a lot of going back and forth,” adds Joseph Uhrinek, who managed the material handling equipment installation for Daifuku. “All of these storage locations are really not storage locations; they’re buffer locations to keep all the material until it’s called out. The turnover is very quick. We’re talking hours.”

Starting at the facility’s two giant four-color, web printing presses, each of which stretches almost the length of a football field, the coupons are printed and folded into the signatures, which are then wound onto rolls. Each signature targets a specific neighborhood trade area (NTA) of 10,000 consumers. The presses run six days a week, 24 hours a day, with minimal downtime for setups. Eight automatic transfer printing units allow press operators to prepare the next job, while others print.

Weighing up to 2,600 pounds, the rolls of signatures are transferred to a buffer storage area. They will stay in this buffer for no more than four hours before moving to collation, where the rolls are cut into individual coupons, combined with other coupons supplied by customers, wrapped in the blue envelopes and packaged onto mail trays.

The mail trays then move to a high-density storage (HDS) system via elevators and conveyors. The HDS mini load system features 8,972 individual storage locations that measure 13 x 30 x 6 inches. In addition to the completed envelopes, this buffer system also holds customer-supplied inserts. Conveyors and sorting transfer vehicles (STVs) from Daifuku move the customer-supplied inserts to the appropriate feeding stations on the collation system.

“The STV technology fits well with our application. We have dedicated lines that run back and forth. It just runs and runs and is very efficient,” says Fox. “Because we do the same thing over and over again, it was a very efficient application for our process.”

Beauty from Afar
When a sufficient number of mail trays for a particular zip code have accumulated in the HDS buffer system, the conveyors carry them out to be sleeved and palletized by robots. Destined for postal distribution hubs across the country, the completed pallets move into another buffer storage system via an STV loop before being aggregated for shipment. This 400- foot-long, 80-foot-tall unit load system uses four robotic cranes moving on rails in 50-inch-wide aisles. Rising out of the roof of the facility, one end of the automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) is sheathed in translucent blue panels. Lit from the inside, the movement of the cranes can be seen at night by motorists passing on the nearby highway.

Located adjacent to the main shipping area, the unit load storage system also handles incoming pallets of raw materials and customer-supplied inserts. When needed, the system retrieves these pallets, which can hold millions of coupons, and delivers them to one of eight picking stations via the STV loop. An order picker then breaks down the pallet into 10,000-count units, placing them into totes, which move into the mini load system. Everything is integrated.

Getting so much equipment from so many partners up and running was no smal l feat . Tolerances and handoffs had to meet. Controls had to be hooked up and calibrated. With so many vendors and subcontractors, it was a huge communication effort. And, as with any large project, schedules changed.

“We all like things to work like clockwork and go as planned. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen,” says Uhrinek. “We were able to be flexible and move people around to work on what they could work on at any given moment.”

Based on his work on the Cox development team, Fox says there’s nothing like the St. Petersburg facility anywhere in the world. Visible to visitors from a specially designed catwalk, the printing, material handling and storage equipment has never been configured in this way to create a continuous-flow printing and distribution process. Even though the application of the equipment is unique, because it uses standard components and controls, they anticipate high levels of reliability.

“Proven at hundreds of locations around the world, the Daifuku equipment features very tight tolerances,” says Uhrinek. “It is very reliable once it has been calibrated and integrated.” The automated storage equipment is maintained by one on-site service person who was brought on board during the installation. He will check each crane—six large cranes and 17 smaller cranes—for tension and lubrication, as defined in the maintenance procedures.

The St. Petersburg facility will double Valpak’s maximum printing capacity from 20 billion to 54 billion coupons per year. Plus, the redesigned production processes will slash manufacturing cycle time from coupon printing to being ready for shipment from four days down to just four hours. Such capabilities will support Cox Target Media’s growth for years to come.

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