Safeguarding efficient and scalable warehouse processes in the long term by using automated logistics systems

Picking operations in many companies for multi-channel sales are becoming increasingly complex with an emphasis on smaller parts all the time. The trend towards orders involving lower quantities results in many individual purchase orders and more picking requests further downstream. This is why Rhenus Warehousing Solutions is using automated robotic systems in its logistics operations to handle the orders placed by its customers.

To ensure that companies do not have to introduce complex enhancements to their warehouse capacity every few years, one option involves integrating a logistics system that can grow in line with volumes. Robotic solutions such as shuttle systems, AutoStore warehouses and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) in particular guarantee scalable and efficient processes. However, which key parameters are important when selecting the suitable system – and what are the major features of the individual solutions?

Efficient handling for large orders using a shuttle system

Some of the most important parameters when selecting the appropriate system include the flexibility of the logistical procedures, the average expected throughput and how feasible it is to extend the logistics system. Shuttle systems are characterised by their high degree of flexibility and scalability, as they grow in line with the order situation. By using additional shelves and robots, it is possible to absorb peaks without any problems and the performance of a shuttle warehouse simply moves up a gear.

These benefits come into play, for example, when handling large orders that include value-added services for specific products. Rhenus is using its innovative flexishuttle technology at its multi-channel distribution centre in Eisenach, which measures approx. 57,000 square metres, for example, in order to fulfil customer orders in the B2C and B2B fields. Rhenus Warehousing Solutions has currently installed 176,000 spaces at the facility, which measures 6,500 square metres, because it is keeping its eye on future developments. By using a flexible number of shuttles, it is possible to deliberately manage advance orders and the daily business. “If necessary, we can expand the shuttle system to more than twice the volume. As a result, we can grow in line with our customers’ needs,” says Andreas Klös, the Branch Manager in Eisenach. The innovative technology will also make it possible to respond to different requirements from additional customers in future in a fast and efficient way.

AutoStore: the space-saving warehouse for orders involving small parts

AutoStore warehouses are also a viable option as an efficient logistics system because they provide flexible and scalable handling. The dust-free storage provided by the AutoStore system is particularly suitable for products that easily catch fire, sensitive technologies or expensive product ranges. The focus here is on saving as much space as possible. The AutoStore system uses the existing area in a facility to keep stocks of the constantly increasing range of goods. The system only needs about half the space that a conventional warehouse with shelves would require.

The robots process goods that are being put into and removed from storage and organise the warehouse by anticipating upcoming needs. The system sorts containers that will soon be needed to the top level so that they are available for use in the near future. If demand changes – for example, as a result of seasonal fluctuations such as the Christmas business – the control system automatically responds and arranges the containers in line with the changes in conditions. By constantly optimising the organisation of the warehouse in line with the quantities of articles being requested, the AutoStore system is particularly suitable for orders involving many small parts.

Rhenus Contract Logistics has installed this kind of automated system at its multi-client distribution centre, which measures 60,000 square metres, at its business site in Tilburg in the Netherlands. Covering an area measuring 1,000 square metres, the AutoStore warehouse is equipped with 21,000 storage spaces, 19 robots, two feed lines and three picking stations. The automatic delivery and discharge of the containers and the IT-supported picking dialogue largely eliminate any errors in the processing chain. Ergonomically designed workplaces also safeguard the health of the employees in the long term.

Rhenus has increased the efficiency of its logistics operations by implementing the AutoStore system and can support more customers with their orders. “We’ve looked into automation and – for the future – robotisation, but naturally also wanted to have a system that suits our customers and their order requirements now. The latter normally involve small quantities and a low number of orders,” says Arnold von Asten, the Branch Manager, explaining the situation. The special advantage of the AutoStore system for Rhenus is that it has achieved cost savings of 30 percent in picking operations.

Autonomous mobile robots: fast, flexible and smart

AMRs in particular provide an easy entry point into the world of robotics. AMRs can find their way around the warehouse on their own on the basis of AI and machine learning. As a result, it is simple to integrate the systems into the existing warehouse infrastructure. The AMR solution is extremely flexible and can easily be expanded. As a result, rapidly growing companies can design new layouts or add more shelves and robots within just a few weeks.

AMRs can take over numerous intralogistics workflows: ranging from manual transport procedures in a warehouse to partial activities in extensive picking processes and even transporting trays or heavy payloads. The scalable system caters for complex transport networks within a warehouse and completes tasks that accrue in a flexible and efficient manner. Using AMRs is ideally suitable for the goods-to-person principle, as the robots support the employees in all the warehouse areas where picking activities are required.

Rhenus Warehouse Systems is using smart AMRs in Hong Kong in order to cope with the strong growth in the omni-channel business. “We can handle orders involving large volumes without any problems because we’re able to respond to rapidly fluctuating articles in a flexible way. We’re leading the way in terms of innovations by investing in this AMR technology,” says Dennis Mak, the Director of Rhenus Warehousing Solutions & Distribution – Greater China, emphasising his point. The AI-controlled robots are constantly sorting more than 2,000 stockkeeping units in the Rhenus warehouse in line with their popularity and sell-by date at the moment.

A summary of the benefits

Selecting the suitable robotic solution largely depends on what is required and how the system can be used at a later stage. If there is a large range of items and a high level of throughput is expected, shuttle systems and AutoStore warehouses are the preferable option. The former are installed in new buildings, while the AutoStore system can be inserted into existing warehouses. “Continual improvement forms the basis for innovations at our Warehousing Solutions division. We’re consistently scrutinising existing processes and solutions and are focusing on innovative technologies that we can harness for our customers,” says Andreas Pikat, the General Manager at Rhenus Warehousing Solutions.