The robotic revolution: Automated supply chain management that changes the game

Described as the world’s most compact and secure goods-to-person automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), AutoStore, powered by Swisslog, is being used by Australia’s largest privately-owned logistics company, Linfox, to deliver outstandingly speedy and safe service to its clients customers.

The ultra-high density AutoStore system chosen by logistics leader Linfox for a new consumer products facility in western Sydney, accommodates more than 20,000 bins of high value product served by 45 robot wheeled bins in an automatic storage and rapid despatch system occupying a floor footprint of just 700 square metres.

The efficient new automation system received ‘highly commended’ recognition by the Supply Chain & Logistics Association of Australia (SCLAA) in the ‘Best Supply Chain Management’ category of their annual awards held in December 2020.

Compared with conventional non-automated warehousing, AutoStore systems offer a 60% reduction in inventory storage footprint, a 50% increase in picking speed and inventory record accuracy of more than 99.9%.

The highly secure but easily operated system is among the latest of more than 500 AutoStore systems delivering such benefits globally, including one employed by the FBI in the USA to safeguard and efficiently manage millions of paper records in the Agency’s first robotic storage and retrieval warehouse for paper records.

Linfox’s installation is the first by the diverse logistics company, which employs more than 24,000 people across 10 countries and is one of the most compactly product-dense of any AutoStore installations.

Swisslog Australia managing director, Francis Meier, says the system is ideal for fast, accurate, secure and clean picking of smaller high-value goods in a greatly reduced space compared with conventional warehousing. The rapidly expandable and adaptable system is ideal, for example, for consumer goods such as sports, fashion, gifts, electronics, beauty and household products, as well as global uses such as medical, surgical, pharmaceutical, high value e-groceries and the huge diversity of personal items in the rapidly expanding retail and ecommerce markets for which hygienic, safe and secure automated despatch is accelerating post-COVID.

AutoStore systems are one of a comprehensive portfolio of Swisslog automation systems for different industries and product types and sizes, including ASRS, automatic conveyor and transport systems, picking and palletising solutions, and flexible and intelligent software solutions.

“AutoStore systems are very clean and safe, eliminating multiple handling by storing internally up to 100,000 products or more that would otherwise be placed in cages on rows of racks,” says Meier.

Swisslog’s AutoStore is a space-saving storage and order packing system for small parts

Linfox president, Consumer and Healthcare Group, Kylie Fraser, says the system places Linfox “at the very forefront of efficient automation, a subject about which we are passionate because of the benefits it brings our customers.

“Linfox is leading the way with investment in exceptional supply chains to help our customers grow stronger and work smarter. We work with our customers and partners using business insights and technology solutions that create better operational models and performance.

“Our valued global consumer goods customer required a bespoke solution to deliver growth through more efficient capacity, productivity, accuracy and speed to market. After an extensive selection process to find an automation partner that understood our customer’s needs, we chose Swisslog.”

Meier says Swisslog worked collaboratively with Linfox and its customer to create a solution that increased storage density to decrease the facility’s overall footprint. AutoStore was selected as it could effectively store and manage the customer’s increasing SKU range whilst increasing operational efficiencies.

Additionally, the solution was designed with safety in mind to store dangerous goods of six different classes, which is the first such installation to be designed and implemented in Australia.

“Swisslog’s easy-to-use SynQ warehouse management software – an essential component of the system – accurately tracks and traces all stock whilst orchestrating the flow of stock for despatch. The flexibility and grid expandability allow for future automation expansion as the customer’s business grows,” says Meier.

Swisslog senior consultant Paul Stringleman says the Swisslog team developed a software package that would support the operational modes of Linfox’s customer to ensure a seamless transition of daily replenishment, storage, picking and despatch.

Fraser says Linfox understands that, to meet changing customer needs, “We need to equip their businesses to be more agile, fast and flexible. This is why traditional supply chain models need to be enhanced through intelligent future-ready technology, like automation.

“Linfox chose Swisslog as our automation partner for our consumer goods customer due to their extensive multinational experience with technologies such as AutoStore and because of:Their proven experience in AutoStore technology with over 200 installed projects in over 20 countries worldwideTheir deep understanding of our customer’s needs, andTheir ability to deliver solutions that help us work smarter.

“These smart solutions start with high performing teams,” she says. “Together with Linfox’s in-house experts, we are proud to collaborate with customers and partners to develop next-generation automated warehouse solutions.

“This type of automation also gives our people the chance to gain new knowledge and skills in technology-enabled warehouses as we boost the efficiency and capability of our customers’ supply chains.”

Automation benefits

Stringleman says AutoStore is an integrated logistics system, which can significantly lighten the load of supply chain management. It allows companies to store more goods in less space, which has cost-saving and efficiency benefits.

“A typical distribution centre contains thousands of static storage locations, requiring employees to walk the aisles, manually picking goods from multiple locations. Not only does this take time but there is a greater possibility for error.

“AutoStore brings the goods right to the picker, increasing throughput across the entire supply chain. Employees are able to pick goods faster and with greater accuracy, which improves their productivity and performance.”

How AutoStore works

Radio-controlled, battery-powered robots move along a grid on top of stacks of bins. When a picking order comes in, robots lift bins from the stacks and deliver them to the picking station, where an operator verifies the contents and adds picks to the order. The robot then returns the bin to storage. New stock is loaded into bins for storage, and as soon as those bins are stored, they are ready to be picked.

A typical AutoStore process involves:

1. The Swisslog Warehouse Management System sequences picking orders to maximise picking productivity.

2. Robots move along an x and y axis on a rail grid on top of the system stack.

3. Robots lift bins from within the vertical stack.

4. The selected bin is moved to the drop stack for delivery to the picking station.

5. Bin is lowered to the port for operator retrieval.

6. Operator verifies the contents, performs the pick as directed and moves to the next bin.

7. Bin is hoisted back up and returned to storage.

More storage in less space

Traditional warehousing approaches cannot match the high-density AutoStore supply storage and picking efficiency. As part of a high-performing consolidated service centre, it is a giant leap toward making supply chain management more efficient, says Stringleman. Swisslog’s advanced software provides insight into the goods stored with the integrated logistics system.

Benefits compared with conventional non-automated warehousing include:50% increase in picking speed60% reduction in inventory storage footprintInventory record accuracy of more than 99.9%Faster turnaround timesMore secure storage (which is important for certain medical or surgical supplies)Easily expandable systemGoods-to-person technology – eliminates opportunity for errorFlexible design – fits into any existing warehouseMulti-tasking – goods can be simultaneously picked and stocked at the same timeSelf-optimising – high-frequency bins are automatically organised to expedite pickingControlled access – access to bins is only from ports, reducing product lossBuilt-in redundancy – each unit and robot operates independently

“Fully automated bin storage, retrieval and delivery translates to operators being able to access up to four bins within one minute. And when a business grows, the space-optimising AutoStore design is easy to expand – just add another vertical level or row to the stack,” says Stringleman.

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