The jury’s out

April 28, 2014 by Kirsty Adams
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LB Foster Materials Handling designs, manufactures and installs solutions to facilitate the movement of products from A to B. But some companies are put off automation because they think that it will be a high-value solution. Could a simpler mechanised system be the answer to their problem?

Many of LB Foster’s customers ask for an automated system, but often what they really need is a mechanised one. Both will give the end user significant labour- and cost-saving benefits. However, whether to offer automation or mechanisation continues to confuse.

So what’s the difference? In the materials handling industry, mechanisation is the process of moving products with machines. Some of these machines require human assistance to make the decisions to operate them, whilst others will automatically carry out a task – and therein lies the confusion.

A true automated operation uses various control systems to instruct equipment to move product with no or very minimum human intervention. It is differentiated from a mechanised system because it is an intelligent, self-controlling process which can integrate with a facility’s overall operating software (eg in a distribution centre the Warehouse Management System – WMS) to command procedures.

LB Foster worked with the world’s leading premium drinks company, Diageo, designing and installing an automated conveying solution with integrated robotics at its new cooperage in Cambus, Clackmannanshire. The cooperage was constructed to produce 250,000 casks a year prior to refilling with the company’s famous whisky brands.

One of the main drivers behind the design of the new facility was to reduce the manual handling of casks which would simultaneously improve safety. This meant that automation of cask movement was required throughout the different processes: rejuvenating casks, repairing casks, enlarging casks and two cask rebuilding processes using different types of staves.

There were a number of challenges to be overcome: firstly the specification of the casks varies greatly in weight from 48kg to 128kg and in height from 855mm to 1,300mm; secondly each cask is bespoke, so has to be married up with its own hoops and ends at the end of the procedure; and, finally, the hazardous cooperage processes themselves including steaming, crozing and charring.

On the rejuvenation line, casks are stripped of ends and quarter-hoops which are placed in a cradle on a power and free overhead conveyor. Removed parts are given an identification number and stored on a RF tag fitted to each carrier. These tags are read by code readers at key positions around the system keeping the parts on the overhead conveyors in synchronisation with the casks travelling along the floor conveyors. At the end of the line the casks are reunited with their ends and hoops at six finishing stations.

Tom Duncan, the production manager of the cooperage, says: “The automated processes have not only enabled us to increase production by 25%, but also, more importantly, to improve the safety of the 80 staff who work here. We’ve done that by reducing their manual handling of casks by 90%, making their work less strenuous and removing them from the more hazardous coopering processes which are now carried out by robots or automated machines.”

The size of an operation is of no consequence when making the decision between automation and mechanisation. Clipper’s deconsolidation centre at Wynyard Park near Teeside has a footprint of 350,000 sq ft with the addition of three vast internal mezzanines, each 165,000 sq ft. The company’s first customer for the centre was Asda, with a 10 year contract for its George clothing brand.

The mechanical storage and handling system installed by LB Foster has been designed to process up to three million George garments per week. The fit-out contract provides 43,000m of overhead monorail transportation, 4,000 overhead rail trolleys, 1,500m of long-distance trolley conveyors, 10 full length goods on hangers trolley boom conveyors, two tower conveyors, pallet racking, a steam tunnel and bagging machines.

Installation of the mechanised garment system took an 18-man team almost four months to complete. Phil Houghton, the business implementation manager for Clipper, comments: “The LB Foster team is experienced in this type of installation, and were willing to share their skill, knowledge and expertise with us to provide a purpose-built solution to meet both our current and future needs.”

Managing director of LB Foster, Gary Bale, concludes: “Whether you are looking to update your current materials handling system or purchase a completely new solution, it is vitally important to take your time at the start of the procedure to consider your options.

“Do you need to automate the entire process, or would mechanising parts of it achieve similar cost and manpower savings? Mechanisation can be as simple as using a machine to handle a task previously done by humans. Automation however, requires re-evaluating and changing processes, not merely mechanising them. An automated system not only moves product between machines, it can also integrate the complete solution with the controlling software which becomes the driving force.”  

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