Warehouse automation is everywhere these days. At Amazon and other online retailers, for instance, “pickers” work side-by-side with robots. (See related article “Warehouse Automation New Frontiers.”)
And with good reason. In many instances, warehouse automation has been shown to improve efficiency, speed, reliability, accuracy and (eventually) cost savings.
Is It Right for You?
But just because automation is so prevalent doesn’t mean it will solve every material-handling issue or be the right fit for your facility. Humans are still better at a lot of things. Indeed, even at Amazon — the mother of all robotic warehouses — machines are not quite ready to take over completely.
As you can see, the science of warehouse automation encompasses all kinds of methods to bring inventory directly to the worker, in order to minimize his or her movements within the facility. Some of the most popular systems are carousels, vertical lifts, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), mini-loads, and automated guided vehicles (AVGs). A separate category of automation includes conveyors that move and direct inventory to the next appropriate operation.
Case in point: A mid-sized industrial distributor made a $3 million investment in carousels linked with an active conveyor. Alas, the system’s performance and reliability were so poor that it was abandoned, at a significant loss to the company. But in hindsight, the owner realized that, even if the system had worked perfectly, it still would have been a really bad investment.
Why? Because even though the automation enabled him to cut his workforce in half (for a savings of $300,000 per year), the five-year return on his $3 million investment would still have been minus 19%.
Like all business decisions, the choice of whether to invest in automation boils down to a reasonable expectation of adequate ROI.
Did you know that every day in America, 13 people go to work and never come home?
That’s right. In 2015 (the most recent statistical year) 4,836 workers were killed on the job.
Another 3.3 million people per year suffer a workplace injury from which they may never recover. No one wants to get hurt on the job. But best safety practices are often neglected because they take a little extra time and effort.
As a result, serious workplace injuries are far too common.
This is the last article of a five-part series on industrial energy efficiency. This month we will address how Compressed Air Systemsare prime targets for energy efficiency measures.
Compressed air is used in many industrial processes, such as sandblasting, injection molding, spray painting, and equipment heating and cooling, to name just a few. Air compression motors have high electrical demands. In fact, up to 20% of total electrical use in certain industries can come from air compression systems.
In many cases, leaks are caused by bad or improperly applied thread sealant. This is why it’s so important to select high-quality components, and install them properly with the appropriate thread sealant.
Did you know that non-operating equipment can be an additional source of leaks? To remedy this problem, any equipment no longer in use should be isolated with a valve in the distribution system.
You can also reduce air leaks by lowering the demand air pressure of the system. The lower the pressure differential across a hole or leak, the lower the rate of flow. A lower rate of flow translates into reduced leakage rates.
Once leaks have been repaired, the compressor control system should be re-evaluated and adjusted (if necessary) to realize the total savings potential. A proactive leak prevention program will go a long way toward improving the performance of your plant’s compressed air systems.
Recovering Waste Heat
As much as 80%-90% of the electrical energy used by an industrial air compressor is converted into heat. In many cases, a heat recovery unit can recover 50%-90% of this available thermal energy and put it to use heating air or water.
Did you know that most lean manufacturing concepts were developed from the philosophies of Benjamin Franklin?
And Henry Ford cited Franklin as a major influence on his own business practices, which included Just-in-Time manufacturing.
Let’s take a look at some of the guiding principles for implementing a lean manufacturing protocol…
First and foremost is waste reduction/elimination. Historically, this is the foundation of modern-day lean manufacturing, identified by Toyota Production System in the 1990’s.
Many of the other principles revolve around this concept. There are seven basic types of waste in manufacturing:
Overproduction (production ahead of demand)
Unnecessary Motion (moving people or equipment more than is required to perform the task)
Excess Inventory (all components and finished product not being processed)
Production of Defects (leading to rework, salvage and scrap)
Waiting (i.e., waiting for the next production step or interruptions of production during shift change)
Transportation (moving products that are not actually required to perform the task)
Overprocessing (resulting from unnecessary work that adds no value)
Waste reduction/elimination involves reviewing all areas of your organization, determining the source of all non-value-added work, and reducing or eliminating it.
Continuous improvement is sometimes referred to by the Japanese word “kaizen,” which literally means “change for the better.”
As the name implies, continuous improvement promotes constant, necessary change toward achievement of a desired state. The changes can be big or small, but they must lend themselves toward improvement.
To be effective, continuous improvement should be a mindset throughout the entire organization. Lean manufacturing experts suggest that you not get caught up in only trying to find the “big ideas,” as small ideas can often lead to big improvements.
For instance, at Toyota, the culture of continual aligned small improvements has yielded large results in overall improved productivity.
Respect for Humanity
The most valuable resource for any company is its people. Without them, the business simply will not succeed.
When employees do not feel respected, they tend to lose respect for their employer. This can become a major problem when a company is trying to implement lean manufacturing principles.
To achieve this, levelized production takes into consideration both forecast and history.
Your customer orders most likely fluctuate daily. Let’s say on Day 1, they want 10 black and five red parts. The next day, they want 12 red and seven black. On Day 3, they only require 13 parts.
Using levelized production:
On Day 1 you would set the level volume at 15 parts per day, and production would replenish the 15 parts that were ordered.
On the second day, the order is 19 parts (four parts higher than our levelized production volume). Production would still build 15 parts and the shipping area would take four parts from an inventory called “fluctuation stock.”
On the third day, the order was 13 parts, which is two less than the levelized volume. So two parts are put back into fluctuation stock.
The basis behind just-in-time production is to build what is required, when it is required and in the quantity required. In conjunction with levelized production, this principle works well with the pull system. It allows for movement and production of parts only when required.
The goal in lean manufacturing is to maintain finished product inventory at the lowest levels possible, while ensuring delivery does not suffer. Of course, it is nearly impossible to carry zero inventory, particularly in facilities where short lead time is essential. So you will need to carry a store of parts to pull from when required.
To facilitate just-in-time production, companies typically employ a system of “kanbans.” A kanban is a hand-sized card that moves with the product or material. It signals when the product is to be built or when the material can be moved.
The kanban basically serves as a work order or pick list. But it also serves as a visual control, to identify the contents of each box. A third function of a kanban is inventory control, to determine the amount of finished product on hand.
This is the fourth article of a five-part series on industrial energy efficiency. This month we cover Part Four of the series: Start-Up Spikes. This occurs whenever energy-consuming equipment and systems are started simultaneously.
Start-up spikes are an all-too-common occurrence in most manufacturing and distribution facilities. When energy-hogging equipment is started up at the beginning of a shift, it can often lead to unintended peak-demand energy charges.
This staging of load ensures that power quality is maintained and any on-site generators are not overloaded during start-up. In addition to the sequential start-up, the load control system would monitor on-site generators, removing power load from the system if the generators become overloaded.
A Case Study
Start-up spikes can sometimes go undetected unless you’re monitoring your energy data. The following situation, reported by Industrial IP Advantage, is a case in point:
A manufacturer’s energy consumption profile documented a significant spike in demand that occurred monthly, without fail, on the same day and at the same time. A submeter pinpointed the source of the spike. During lunch break on the same day of the month, the maintenance staff simultaneously started all of the production equipment for testing purposes.
Staging the start-up – achieving a steady state with one system before turning on the next – would avoid the spike. But the optimal energy management strategy also included scheduling the once-monthly testing at 6 a.m. during the power utility’s off-peak demand period. The bump in overtime costs is minimal relative to paying peak rates over the course of an entire year.
This example underscores the importance of routine energy monitoring, so that start-up spikes can be pinpointed and eliminated before they become a problem.
Up to 20% of total electrical use in certain industries comes from air compression systems. Our last article in this series will address how these systems are prime targets for energy efficiency measures.
On May 18, 2015, “as the light was fading at the end of a bitterly cold day,” zoologist Tony Martin dropped his last rat bait pellet onto a peninsula at the western tip of an island near the South Pole.
“We had finished. We had really finished,” Martin wrote in his final transmission.
Another consideration was that Martin’s team of conservationists needed the containers to be recyclable and/or biodegradable. They wanted to leave virtually no evidence that they had even been there.
But to save the tortoises and other threatened wildlife populations, the folks at Bell Labs had to ensure that their product would survive the trip to the Galapagos and the tropical Ecuadorian climate. In addition, the containers had to meet the Galapagos project’s strict environmental guidelines.
This is the third article of a five-part series on industrial energy efficiency. This month we cover Part Three of the series: Weeknight Setbacks. This is the practice of reducing or eliminating an industrial facility’s energy usage during weeknight off-periods.
Energy is complex. With so many moving pieces, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when trying to improve efficiency. And industrial facilities, with multiple independently-controlled systems, are equally complex.
Is there any equipment routinely left on that could be shut off? Any motors operating unnecessarily (such as a ceiling fan in an unoccupied space)?
What about computers and office equipment? Any that don’t go into “sleep” mode after a period of inactivity? This could be a real power drain.
With regard to lighting, occupancy sensors and timers can capture significant energy savings. But they need to be combined with lighting systems that can be effectively controlled. Is your staff trained to turn off all lights when closing?
Space heaters are huge energy hogs. If they’re being used in your facility, that usually indicates poor HVAC system control. You’ll want to investigate.
Is your rooftop ventilation unit equipped with exhaust fans? You can set them to run only when spaces are occupied.
Did you know that heating and cooling your facility can account for up to 50% of your energy use?
One of the most cost-effective means of reducing energy consumption is by setting the temperature back during weeknight off-periods. (Typical thermostats are set between 65°F to 70°F for heating and 72°F to 78°F for cooling.)
The Department of Energy projects that you can reduce your energy cost by 5% – 12% with a 3°F to 10°F setback. A 10°F to 20°F setback can result in a 9% – 18% energy cost reduction!
Programmable thermostats are typically classified as three types:
Electromechanical thermostats use an electrical clock and a series of pins and levers to control temperature. These are the least expensive programmable thermostats. They’re also easy to control, but offer limited flexibility.
Digital thermostats allow you to tailor settings to varying schedules for different days of the week, or up to four different “setpoints” per day.
Occupancy sensorthermostats maintain the setback temperature until triggered by a person entering the controlled space. The trigger mechanism can be a switch, button, light, or motion sensor.
Is It Worth It?
Once you’ve implemented a weeknight setback program, you need to determine if it’s paying off.
Fortunately, new technologies now allow industrial businesses to compare energy use over time to see how setback sequences change. Having access to historical demand data to create a relative performance benchmark is a key consideration when contemplating an energy efficiency strategy.
According to the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Dayton, the easiest way to track your progress is by using data analysis software that compiles available temperature, production and utility billing data. Anything more complicated may be too complex for widespread use.
The EPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager is a reasonable choice. Not only does this online tool measure energy and water consumption, but it tracks greenhouse gas emissions as well. And it can be used to benchmark the performance of a single building or multiple buildings.
Hard starts are rough on equipment, causing premature wear and tear. And they can lead to unintended peak- demand charges. Our next article, “Start-Up Spikes,” will look at how to avoid them.
In 2010, police in Dubai intercepted a container from a Liberian-registered ship that had originated from Pakistan. Suspecting narcotics smuggling, they searched the container’s cargo—heavy bags of iron filings—but found nothing.
Almost as an afterthought, they then decided to check the pallets on which the bags had rested. Inside each pallet was a hollowed-out section containing 500 to 700 grams of heroin.
Which only goes to show you that pallets typically go unnoticed. (A fact that the drug smugglers were no doubt counting on.)
Invisible, But Everywhere
Think about it… This unassuming construction of beams and planks has carried most every object on the planet, at one time or another.
“Pallets move the world,” according to Mark White, an emeritus professor at Virginia Tech and director of a pallet and container research lab.
And, while they may not look like much, these simple shipping containers play a major role in the history of our economy. But just when did the ever-humble pallet become such a warehouse staple?
It All Began…
Before the birth of pallets, wooden crates, boxes, barrels, and kegs were the mechanisms of choice for transporting and storing goods. Skids were also sometimes used. (As you no doubt already know, a skid is similar to a pallet but does not have bottom deck boards.)
In fact, the use of skids dates back to Ancient Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia, in the 1st millennium B.C.
It wasn’t until the early 1920’s, shortly after the modern forklift was invented, that skids evolved into pallets. (This, of course, helps to answer that age-old question: Which came first, the pallet or the forklift? It was, indeed, the forklift.)
Recognizing that skids did not provide the support and stability often required for heavier loads, bottom planks were added to the design in 1925. And the pallet was born.
This addition resulted in an improved weight distribution and a decrease in product damage. It also led to the concept of stacking, which allowed goods to be moved and stored with extraordinary speed and versatility.
Needless to say, the dawn of the pallet revolutionized the way merchandise was gathered, stored and protected. It wasn’t long before every warehouse across the globe began relying on these simple wooden structures to load and store their goods.
Then the war came. The Big One — WW II. And the popularity of pallets skyrocketed.
Mass production of all kinds of goods, especially for the military, increased sharply. Pallets were used by thousands of small and mid-sized business throughout North America.
As a result, it quickly became obvious that pallet standardization was necessary. Every link in the handling chain needed to know just what it was receiving and had to be prepared to receive it.
That’s when the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance set up a Materials Handling Laboratory in Hingham, Massachusetts. Their purpose was to engineer the job of handling as much war material on pallets as possible.
Working together, the Allied countries established a universal 48 X 48 standard size pallet to accommodate easy of shipment and storage of ammunition and other war materials.
One important feature of the standard pallet size is that it fits common 8’ 6” and 9’ 2” railroad box cars beautifully. In addition, the square shape simplified loading and unloading, as well as warehouse stowage.
Pallets Helped Us Win the War
Pallets played a huge role in the Allied forces winning the war. Tens of millions of pallets were employed.
In fact, according to one historian, “The use of the forklift trucks and pallets was the most significant and revolutionary storage development of the war.”
During this time, a resourceful Navy Supply Corps officer, looking for a way to improve turnaround times for materials handling, invented the “four-way pallet.” With notches cut in the side of the pallet, forklifts could now pick up pallets from any direction.
The design change was a relatively minor refinement that resulted in a doubling of material-handling productivity per worker.
This archived 1950’s video footage shows how surprisingly modern warehouses had become by that time:
Today there are approximately 450 million new pallets produced in North America each year. About 1.9 billion pallets are in use at any given time.
Today’s pallets are designed to withstand enormous weights and be lifted on and off trucks, ships, and planes. You might even say that, without them, it’s uncertain whether the global economy would be as strong as it is today.
For a virtually invisible object, pallets are everywhere!