Material Handling
Monday | 27 July, 2009 | 3:35 am

Role reversal

Written by By Lisa Rummler

July 2009 - Car keys can’t elude people, nor can cell phones or sunglasses. Just try to make that argument, though, when it’s time to drive to work, make an important call or go to a baseball game on a sunny day and the crucial item can’t be found.

These moments invariably lead to frantic rummaging through drawers, emptying of bags and overturning sofa cushions, with the searcher wishing the lost item could be located with the push of a button.

A similar feeling can be found at metal service centers with large or varied inventories. Although the size and weight of steel, nickel, aluminum and other metal products preclude them from being easily misplaced, the possibility exists.

"You find, especially in large warehouses, that material gets lost," says Werner Rankenhohn, president of Kasto Inc., Export, Pa. "It’s not that it’s not there anymore but that people have a hard time locating it because at some point in the operating process, an error was made. That is, the material was supposed to go into location B but accidentally was put into location C, and somebody records it to be in B, whereas it’s in C, and you can’t find it again."

Kasto’s honeycomb automated storage and retrieval systems help minimize these situations. It’s not a matter of just pushing a button, but it’s not too far off.

"Typically, [at a service center] you have materials stored somewhere in racks, in shelves or in A-frames on the floor, and when somebody needs something, an operator has to go where the material is, find the right amount of that material and then bring it to where it’s being packaged," says Rankenhohn. "An ASRS does the opposite. It’s not that the operator goes to the material but that the material is being delivered automatically to the operator."

For sheet metal and bar stock, the system stores the material on pallets or in cassettes, which are boxes custom built to hold whatever a customer specifies. Ranken­­hohn says a typical cassette is 2 feet wide, 16 inches high and 24 feet to 26 feet long.

"That cassette holds a bundle of material, and that bundle of material is identified by a specific material ID number," he says. "So when that material is needed, the operator only has to enter the material ID number and the requested quantity into the computer. And then the system, knowing where the material is, in the right quantities, brings a cassette to the operator. The operator isn’t going around and hoping to find the right material on the first try."

Tall order
In addition to increasing efficiency and streamlining material handling operations, the honeycomb system can reduce the cost of labor, according to Rankenhohn, particularly if a facility produces 300 or more line items per day.

"Say you have 300 line items, and one operator does 30 a day," he says. "That makes for 10 operators. Plus, you need people who bundle that material, you need people who weigh the material and put the shipping tag onto the material.

"An automatic system is capable of doing about 40 line items an hour. So if I have 300 line items, I’m done in 7.5 hours. And for a system like that, I would need a maximum of two people."

Honeycomb systems also require less floor space than sideloader systems, A-frames and cantilever racks, according to Rankenhohn.

"Sideloader systems go maybe 20 feet, 25 feet, sometimes as tall as 30 feet, but in most cases, the weight decreases as you go higher," he says. "You need, then, room for the sideloader trucks to move around, so there are a lot of traffic ways. Whereas in a honeycomb system, we have a much higher density, and we go 60 feet, 70 feet, 80 feet tall."

This aspect played a large role in the honeycomb systems’ popularity in Europe, which initially had more demand than the rest of the world, according to Rankenhohn. (About 1,500 systems are now installed around the globe, including Australia and the United States.)

"All the countries in Europe are much, much smaller, so floor space is a premium," he says. "The first 100 or 200 systems or so sold in Europe at the time were mainly because people had no place to grow other than go up, go vertical."

Piece by piece
In addition to labor and space savings, which Rankenhohn says are the main benefits U.S. companies cite, honeycomb systems offer "softer" advantages.

"There’s a trend in the industry that we see not only in North America but also worldwide, and that is service centers are more or less forced to store more inventory, or a greater variety of grades, shapes and sizes, but the average order size is getting smaller," says Rankenhohn. "So people don’t want or need to buy an entire bundle—they want one piece of this and two pieces of that. And the more that happens, the more handling gets involved. And the more handling gets involved, the easier the justification becomes for automated systems."

Further, for service centers that offer saw cutting, honeycomb systems can help organize remnants and optimize their use for future applications and orders.

"What does a service center do if it has a 20-foot bar standard length and cuts 2.5 feet off of it and now has 17.5 feet left?" says Rankenhohn. "That has to be recorded as such, and it has to be kept so that the next time someone needs, say, 17 feet, you would literally go to that 17.5-foot bar to maximize the yield.

"Now, in theory, that works great. In reality, it doesn’t because too often, an operator goes and finds a waste piece, measures it and it’s too short. So what does he do then? He goes to a full-size bar."

This can lead to the creation of more remnants. Honeycomb systems know when they’re receiving a remnant, however, because everything added to or removed from the system is weighed and measured.

This data collection allows operators to have improved accuracy for inventory and to cut desired length from remnants, not a new piece of material.

Near the Big Easy
One of the most recent installations of a honeycomb system in the United States is at Corrosion Materials, Baker, La. Rob Hanks, processing supervisor, says the company purchased the system in September 2007 and began loading products into it by mid-November 2008.

Corrosion Materials has been supplying corrosion-resistant alloys for more than 40 years and has developed the resources, skills and inventory to successfully serve the process industry. Its honeycomb system has about 1,000 cassettes in two sizes: a low one for solid bar material and a taller one for tube and pipe.

An uptick in demand about four years ago prompted Corrosion Materials to investigate a new material handling system.

"We were at a point in which physical growth was needed," says Hanks. "We wrestled with the idea of continuing down the same path of traditional storage, but we’ve found that method to be labor-intensive, potentially unsafe and counterproductive."

In addition to finding a system that met its efficiency and safety standards, Corrosion Materials required one that would ensure the company would keep its lead times with customers--Hanks says Corrosion Materials turns orders within a day of their placement.

"Our vision has always focused around being efficient, safe and meeting our promised ship dates to our customers," he says. "And we couldn’t think of any better way to accomplish that than to add an ASRS system. This system gives us the flexibility and capacity to take on more product lines. It really opens up a lot of possibilities for us."

Hanks says the IT department and management team at Corrosion Materials were integral in successfully implementing the honeycomb system and that Kasto has provided, and continues to provide, excellent service.

"Our experience has been great," says Hanks. "It’s a long-term investment for us, along with a long-term commitment by Kasto. We’re both in it for the long haul." MM


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