Case-Study: Seamlessly Connecting Production & Distribution

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

Appointed to build and operate a client’s new distribution centre, United States Cold Storage reached out to Swisslog for their innovative automation technologies. By Swisslog

United States Cold Storage (USCS), founded in 1899 as American Ice Company before changing their name in 1920, provides refrigerated storage and fully integrated third party logistics solutions for food companies worldwide. When a client was expanding its ice cream production facility and wanted to add a new distribution centre to the site, USCS was chosen to build and operate it.

To be successful, USCS needed to address two key requirements. First, it needed to safely and efficiently transport the final product from the production facility to the distribution centre located across a roadway. In the distribution centre, a system was needed to store ice cream in a holding area for 24 hours and then dispense it to the manual operators who move it to either long-term storage or shipping.

Smart design of the distribution centre was critical. USCS wanted to limit the amount of distance travelled by manual operators in order to maximise throughput with fewer workers and limit their exposure to the harsh, -20°F (-28.9 deg C) deep-freeze environment.

To design and build its new facility, USCS reached out to Primus Builders and Swisslog. Primus Builders was hired to construct the new distribution centre and Swisslog for their innovative automation technologies.

The Solution

Bringing its expertise in automation and temperature controlled environments, Swisslog helped USCS address its challenges. It implemented and engineered an innovative, automation solution that seamlessly connects production with distribution while maximising efficiency of operation.

Pallets of ice cream are transported from production to the distribution centre through a corridor elevated 25 ft above ground level. This ensures swift movement of pallets in a controlled environment and avoids interference with truck traffic on the facility grounds.

The 336,000 sq ft distribution centre features a unique ‘butterfly’ configuration that facilitates a highly efficient way of holding and dispensing product. With this configuration, product arriving is stored automatically in a temporary racking system that accommodates 4,000 pallet positions along one side of a 550 ft long aisle.

After holding for 24 hours, pallets are then automatically retrieved and dispensed on the opposite side of the aisle. From there, they are manually moved to long-term storage or shipping. The whole process maximises efficiency, moving product from production to holding and then dispensing it at a rate of 85 pallets per hour.

Pallet Pickup From Production

Swisslog’s solution begins at the output of the production facility. Final pallets of ice cream are picked up by one of two Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), using an on-board conveyor. The AGVs move along a defined route from the palletising station to the in-feed section. There, they unload the pallets. At this point the product is scanned and ready to move to storage and/or distribution.

AGVs provide a smart alternative to manual transport. They offer reliable, on-time delivery that does not hold up production—each is programmed using an optimal transport strategy. Additionally, with manual forklifts already operating in the palletising section, the use of programmed AGVs reduces the risk of collision, enhancing overall safety without requiring manual intervention.

In-Feed And Conveyor Corridor

A 350-ft long, elevated corridor connects the production facility with USCS’s distribution centre. The corridor is raised 25 ft above ground level to allow for safe passage of trucks below. The elevated corridor serves two purposes.

First, it keeps the pallets within a temperature-controlled environment during their entire journey from production. Second, by moving pallets above ground, they avoid blocking traffic below. Both trucks and products stay safely on the move.

A vertical lift also raises pallets up from the AGVs to the corridor. Within the corridor, pallets are moved using a ProMove chain conveyor. The conveyor is constructed specifically to operate in cold storage environments with high reliability and minimal intervention from personnel.

Automatic Storage And Retrieval System

The Automatic Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) features two Swisslog Vectura cranes specially designed for the USCS distribution centre. The cranes pick up pallets from the elevated corridor and automatically store them in an aisle of temporary holding racks using a single deep fork unit. After holding them for 24 hours, the same cranes retrieve the pallets and deliver them to the opposite side of the aisle for dispensing.

The cranes use specially designed on-board conveyors that lift and tilt the pallets onto rack gravity flow lanes for pickup. Manually operated fork trucks then pick up the pallets and deliver them to one of 35,000 positions in longterm storage racks, or send them directly to shipping.

The ‘butterfly’ configuration of the ASRS section allows for a hybrid manual/ automated solution. While warehouse staff are required to move final product to shipping, the smart use of automation limits the amount of ground they must cover, minimising the number of workers needed and their exposure to the elements.

Each crane patrols a 270-ft length of the aisle and dispenses product to one of six designated geographic areas, putting it closest to that pallet’s final destination.

WM6 Warehouse Management System

USCS controls the entire process using WM6, the latest version of Swisslog’s Warehouse Manager software. The software acts as the cornerstone of the Swisslog automation solution, integrating people, processes and technology—from the AGVs at the palletising station all the way through to the distribution centre.

WM6 interfaces with both USCS’s warehouse system and the system at the ice cream production facility. When a pallet is delivered to the in-feed station, before being raised onto the conveyor, the software scans it and records receipt of the product.

Upon delivery into the distribution centre, WM6 checks with USCS’s system to determine where the product goes into the storage. The process repeats when dispensing, with the software determining the optimal zone to place the pallet. The system provides comprehensive tracking and traceability for both USCS and its client while enhancing efficiency, accuracy and reliability of their operations.

Meeting Tomorrow’s Challenges

Manual processes have traditionally dominated the cold storage industry. However, with qualified workers becoming rarer and the use of cold storage facilities gaining in popularity, automated systems are ready to fill the gap.

The Covington site is a good example of how to incorporate automation. The distribution facility is closed for a 24-hour period on weekends, while the production plant remains open. Using the hybrid (manual/automated) ASRS solution allows pallets to be automatically stored over the weekend and then dispensed when the facility re-opens.

Swisslog automation also helps to minimise workforce requirements when the distribution centre is open. Smart design and intelligent management systems minimise the amount of distance travelled by manual fork truck operators. This helps reduce the number of manual operators needed while still meeting USCS’s target throughput of 85 pallets per hour.