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Material Handling
Tuesday | 23 December, 2014 | 10:44 am

Methodical movement

By Gretchen Salois

Above: A 4T 40-foot SpaceSaver Rack (foreground) was installed in 1992, succeeded by multiple new 6T 40-foot units behind it.

Accessing inventory calls for a custom storage and retrieval system

December 2014 - Servicing clients effectively is not just about having the right inventory on hand, it’s also about how quickly you can find and retrieve the materials needed to fulfill an order. Any hiccups in the process can mean the difference between a repeat order and a lost opportunity. 

Upgrading storage systems can be expensive and a distributor must feel secure about its position in the marketplace before investing. The Coeur d’Alene’s Co., better known as Cd’A Metals, has proven its staying power, having been established in 1884. It has grown rapidly in the past five-plus years, having increased employment 85 percent across four locations: just outside Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; Spokane, Washington; Missoula, Montana; and La Grande, Oregon.

After years of using stanchion racks, stacking racks, pigeon-hole racks, cantilever racks and rollout racks, President and CEO Lawrence “Larry” Coulson took a fresh look at his inventory and studied how much time was required to retrieve material. He toured 15 companies to examine the available rack systems, keeping in mind the facility for which he needed a solution was often smaller than the companies he surveyed. 

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So in 1988 Cd’A Metals installed a 40-foot-long stacking rack system for long products. “Over the years we outgrew our inventory and rack system and we added a building,” Coulson says. “We bought racks for some of the specialty products, like alloy bars. And earlier this year I took another look at our 40-foot-long product area and found our growth and inventory had outpaced the rack system and we were digging too much when picking the material.”

Unlike during the late 1980s, when Coulson had limited shop space to store inventory, years of physical growth brought with it evolving space configurations. 

Comparing configurations

Each rack system offers its own set of pros and cons. Stanchion racks use the most floor space but are laid out so material is easy to access and not piled high. Stacking racks don’t need as much floor space but as the stack increases over time, it takes a considerable amount of time and labor to dig down and retrieve the desired pieces.

Pigeon-hole racks allow floor space to be used efficiently but are labor intensive when restocking. Automatic storage and retrieval systems are capital intensive. Cantilever racks use vertical space well but pick time is nearly doubled because each time material is placed in a pan, it is then placed in a cantilever rack pocket where it is pulled out to retrieve an item. That pan then needs to be returned before getting the next pan, requiring two actions to achieve one result. 

“And like with pigeon-hole systems, an expensive storage-and-retrieval system can be installed to automate the cantilever rack system,” explains Coulson. “The problem with capital-intensive storage and retrieval systems is that they reduce flexibility, limiting the ability to change your plant as market or customer demand changes.”

Cd’A is reconfiguring a SpaceSaver rack system purchased in 1992 from 40-foot-long units to store 20-foot-long material. It purchased a battery of six tall racks. “I took my old 40-foot-long tall racks and bought some extra components and converted them into racks for 20-foot-long stock. We have more 20- and 40-foot  items now to satisfy a broader market so we needed more racks and a better system to store the material,” Coulson says. 

Cd’A Metals is also installing a SpaceSavers unit specifically made to store mini-mill bundles of bar products.

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“We custom build our racks to specific size applications,” says Steel Storage Systems Inc. President Brian McCallin. Custom-sized racking systems make up about 10 percent of the Commerce City, Colorado-based company’s orders. 

Reconfiguring Cd’A Metals’ space seemed daunting at first but Coulson found that Steel Storage Systems’ SpaceSaver Racks, or rollout racks, offered a combination of space consumption and pick time that “significantly cuts down on costs. It’s a flexible system that can, as needed, be adjusted to fit a company’s position as it changes along with the steel market.”

Adopting SpaceSaver racks for some inventory didn’t mean dumping every rack system on the floor. “We still use many of these older rack systems for various purposes,” Coulson explains. “Replacing and upgrading our racking system is an ongoing process of continuous improvement.” 

Cd’A Metals’ customers manufacture equipment serving the agricultural sector, packaging and transportation sectors, among others. With 1,200 picks a day, demand is on the rise. “About a third of those line items are in the bar bay, which houses about 1,000 items,” Coulson explains. “We pull what we need and return the drops to where they go. We had to try a lot of different configurations before we figured out the best way to approach the process.”

Quick picks

Pulling 20-foot-long bars from racks situated in a dense storage area can be cumbersome. 

“The SpaceSaver system is just as dense as the old stacking racks we had but, when we need to pull something that needs a crane, we no longer need to make numerous picks just to get down to one needed item,” Coulson says.

It’s not just about accessing the one item in a pile of multi-sized products, but for every 20 times an item is accessed, stock is replenished. “Before, every time we put something away we had to dig down to restock the racks,” Coulson explains. Being able to roll out the rack instead of digging is quicker, easier and safer.

The rollout racks have top sections into which Cd’A Metals keeps excess bundles that can be dropped into the rack when it becomes empty. “Before there were deep stacks of bundles, often requiring digging down to retrieve a bundle to restock a rack. Instead of multiple picks for one transaction, we need to do only one.”

SpaceSaver rollout racks are designed to complement overhead crane handling. “Without an overhead crane they’re not practical,” McCallin says. The racks feature receptacles that crank out into an open aisle, exposing the receptacle to the overhead crane so material can be immediately picked. “There’s no rummaging through material.”

Those picks add up, because Cd’A Metals loads 13 trucks a day at its main facility and also fills 150 will-call orders a day, for which customers pick up their ordered material instead of having it delivered. 

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Not one size fits all

Coulson’s cautious approach is calculated, which may be why Cd’A Metals has minimal debt. “We’ll shoulder some debt to purchase new machinery, like when we bought our most recent laser cutting system, but we tend to follow through by paying it back soon,” he says. 

Cd’A Metals supplies its customers with a full range of long products as well as some plate and sheet (the latter using completely different methods of storage from long products).

At Steel Storage Systems, “we look specifically at the requirements of the material and the storage space available. We then develop proposals specific to that client’s application. That way customers can evaluate if it’s going to make the most sense through a value standpoint,” says McCallin. 

Steel Storage Systems studies a customer’s inventory and plant layout to determine the most suitable rack model and quantity to fulfill the application. A layout drawing is provided showing an exact perspective of the SpaceSavers in the plant. The customer knows precisely the number of items and tonnage stored and the footprint required.

The company also manufactures conveyor systems and Cd’A Metals uses two for its operations. “These are handling systems that serve a saw,” McCallin says, pointing out these conveyors represent another example of the company’s modular designs. Cd’A Metals has reconfigured and added to these systems over the years as well.

Quick access means getting material to production equipment or bundling shipments for customers that buy straight stock, “very rapidly so we can move on to the next item,” says Coulson. “It’s all about flow and our Steel Storage Systems rollout racks make it all possible.” MM

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