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Automation Direct Expands Automated Warehouse System

 

Automationdirect.com, a leader in the industrial automation market, has grown tremendously since it first offered its direct-sales catalog of PLC products in January 1994. In April 1999, the company launched its e-commerce site, and the catalog now offers an estimated 2,600 products in its catalog. In 2002, the company’s product line grew more than 40%.

 

The Problem

 

The warehouse operation is an integral part of meeting Automationdirect.com’s promise that orders received by 4:00 p.m. EST will ship the same day. Not only does Automationdirect.com strive to keep their self-imposed shipping deadline, but it also works hard to maintain their 99.98% order-accuracy rate. This has largely been accomplished with the installation of a PC-based control system and bar code identification system. To manage the increase in its product line, Mark Hermann, the logistics team captain, knew they needed to increase the capacity of their current warehouse system.

 

Hermann said, “We had more products coming in, but our space was limited. We also had to deal with the fact that a lot of the new products were of a smaller cube size. Our research told us that continuing with our old system would be expensive because we would need to hire more people, and using an A-frame automation system would also be too expensive.”

 

The Solution

 

 Automationdirect.com turned to several outside vendors to find a solution to ease their growing pains. Hermann called INTEWORX.NET, Inc., an integration firm, to write the control software and integrate the new system with the existing inventory management system. Solutions in Action was called to install the necessary hardware, and PathGuide Technologies, who wrote the original inventory management software, was asked to update the software to enable orders to be picked from the new system as well as the old system.

 

Hermann said, “When deciding on who to help us with the integration, we knew right away to turn to INTEWORX.NET. We had worked with their Senior Engineer Bill Glover before and knew he was easy to work with, honest, and experienced with the software and hardware that we would be using.”

 

Automationdirect.com had used Think & Do software before when installing its warehouse system, and wanted to continue to use it for the expansion project because it had proven to be reliable, and they would have the control to make their own changes.

 

To make the most efficient use of the space that they had, Automationdirect.com purchased a carousel system from Solutions in Action because it made more use of vertical space and took less horizontal space. It was also the ideal solution for managing the smaller-sized products.

 

Solutions in Action provided and installed the carousel and conveyor system. Solutions in Action Representative, Gene Sanders, was Automationdirect.com’s main contact. Hermann said, “ Solutions in Action was very professional and used only the best installers. Automationdirect.com installed the remaining hardware that was required using 90% Automationdirect.com products.”

 

The first challenge for INTEWORX.NET was the integration of the old system with the new system. Glover said, “We needed to design the controls and make the system work so they could pick the items from the new carousel. To do this, we rewrote the old warehouse elevator system to send items to the new carousel system.”

 

Glover continued, “We also had to find a way to interface with PathGuide, the original inventory management system. We decided to share information through a SQL Server Database. We used PC-based controls and Ethernet controls to talk directly to the database without the need of an additional PC-based SCADA system. Unlike a PLC system that would require another computer, the PC-based system allowed the control system to share information directly with the inventory system.” Choosing the PC-based system kept the costs down in development time and hardware expense while creating more cohesion between the control and inventory systems.

 

The New Process

 

Orders are received through the Automationdirect.com web site or by phone through a toll-free number. Those orders are processed and sent to the warehouse through the PathGuide system that includes ceiling-mounted RF transceivers that send the necessary order information to hand-held bar code scanners. At the same time, PathGuide sends the same information through the network to the control system designed using Think & Do software.

 

The people on the 1st floor of the warehouse assemble a cardboard box based on the size of the order. They place a bar code label on the outside of the box and then put an order sheet that is linked to the bar code into the box. They place the box on the conveyor/elevator system. To fill the order, workers take a hand-held bar code reader and scan the order sheet in the box. The scanner will tell them what to pick from the shelves and where the product is located.

 

As they pick, they scan each product’s bar code to record what has been added to the box. The box continues on the conveyor toward an elevator. Prior to reaching the elevator, a fixed bar code reader on the conveyor belt scans the box’s bar code label. At this point, Think & Do software knows where to direct that box. If the order is incomplete, the box will go to the 2nd or 3rd floor or to the new carousel area for additional products. If the order is complete, it goes to the shipping area to be delivered.

 

On the 2nd and 3rd floors, workers continue to scan and pick products to complete the order. If the necessary products needed to complete the order are in the carousel area, Think & Do continues to send the box along the conveyor to that area. Before it reaches the carousel, it passes another fixed bar code reader, which the new Think & Do system reads and creates a group of boxes called a “slug.”

 

When the carousel picker is ready for the slug, he presses a button on his hand-held scanner in which the PathGuide system sends a request to the Think & Do system to release the “slug” to be moved into the picking area. At the same time, Think & Do sends the bar-code numbers for that group to PathGuide. PathGuide then returns to Think & Do a list of all the products and carousel locations for the boxes to complete the orders.

 

Think & Do then runs an optimization program to turn the carousels for the picker to pick from. It will read the list and move the carousels to the nearest product bin on that list. It continues this procedure until all products have been picked to complete the order. It will always take the shortest route to reduce idle time. This optimization process makes the warehouse automation system as efficient as possible. When all the orders in the carousel area are completed, the conveyor sends those boxes on to shipping.

 

The Reward

 

 Hermann said, “The project took about six-weeks and ran smoothly. We were able to beat our target date for start-up by a full week. We have been well pleased with the outcome. It has met our expectations in keeping the cost down while increasing our pick efficiency and maintaining our 99.98% accuracy rate.”

 

 

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