Automated storage and retrieval of steel streamlines stockholder’s business

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High-performance engineering steel is stored safely and picked more efficiently at Oldbury-based Bohler-Uddeholm (UK) since it invested £3 million in an automated Kasto Unicompact warehouse and a further £1 million in other site improvements.

The computer-controlled storage and retrieval system became operational in the first quarter of 2016, having been systematically populated with bar, tube and other long stock that was previously held in conventional cantilever racking.

The immediate and future benefits are far-reaching. The number of forklift trucks on site has been cut from 15 to 6, reducing overheads, making the working environment safer for personnel and cutting diesel emissions. In addition, warehouse operator costs have been lowered by 15 per cent, with personnel redeployed to other duties.

There has been an 80 per cent saving in floor area. The Kasto store has a 1,000 m2 footprint, whereas previously 5,500 m2 was required to stock 2,600 tonnes of material, although the new tower can easily hold double that amount. The freed floor space will be used to increase the number of bandsaws, machining centres and grinders to allow Bohler-Uddeholm (UK) to carry out more added-value processing.

Managing director Tom Gowans commented, "The automated warehouse has already started to raise our competitiveness and will underpin our planned 50 per cent growth in throughput by 2020, increasing turnover from £50 million to £75 million.

"It will also benefit our customers, as we can now ensure same-day picking and despatch for all orders received before noon. In the past, during busy periods, we could not guarantee that. Average lead-time has consequently halved to one-and-a-half days.

"The operational savings from investing in the automated warehouse will be further increased by moving from 24/5 working to a double shift pattern later this year when the new system has bedded in.

"Taking all of the economies into account, return on investment will be within three to five years, depending on the business climate and in particular a recovery in the oil and gas sector, which is an important part of our business."

Bohler-Uddeholm is part of the Special Steel Division of voestalpine Stahl AG, which owns specialised mills in Austria, Germany, Sweden and Brazil producing cold and hot work steels, mould and tool steels, high speed steels and various alloys including nickel-based varieties.

The Kasto Unicompact 3.5 at Oldbury is the sixth bespoke warehouse manufactured by Kasto in Germany for Bohler-Uddeholm group distribution centres worldwide. The 37-metre long store contains 2,377 travelling cassettes capable of holding steel bars and tubes up to eight metres long to a maximum weight per location of 3.5 tonnes. Useable width of the cassettes is 620 mm and there are three height variants - 180 mm, 220 mm and 450 mm.

The automated storage and retrieval facility is 15 metres high and has been built onto the end of the original warehouse at Oldbury, which is nine metres high. Exterior parts of the extension have weatherproof cladding, including a 26 metre long end wall and the four sides of the tower that are above the nine-metre roof line.

An integrated, overhead gantry crane feeds 12 cassette buffer stations, where operators put material away into store and pick orders. Some material is transferred to 17 automatic bandsaws and on to other machine tools, all of which are now close to the store. Previously, material on racking had to be found by the picker and moved through two bays by lift truck for processing. It entailed significant operational cost disadvantages, health & safety risks associated with manual material movement and potential delays in supplying customers.

The storage system delivers and returns up to 45 cassettes per hour containing a mix of 4,500 line items of engineering steel between eight and two metres long. (Shorter sections are held in two 9.5-metre Lean Lift towers nearby.)

The picking crane has a double cycle capability, picking a new order and returning the previous cassette to the free location, ensuring fast and dynamic delivery. The warehouse is particularly energy efficient, as it does not need lighting or heating, added to which energy recovery and power storage on the downward travel of the picking crane is a standard feature of Kasto warehouse designs.

The Kastologic warehouse control system with ID and password access has been interfaced with the stockholder's SAP administration and inventory system, which includes Idox information management software. It has created a largely paperless working environment, with inventory management and 100 per cent material traceability provided from material purchase to sale. Data input to the system is via barcodes or numeric product coding, or by length and / or weight of material.

Mike Hickman, operations manager at Bohler-Uddeholm (UK) said, "Throughout the installation of the automated warehouse, the inter-company co-operation between us and Kasto in mechanical design, bespoke IT solutions, installation, training and back up has been excellent."

Tom Gowans added, "Part of the strategy for this project was to achieve a culture change within our company and to bring our four divisions closer, with the strapline 'Work Together to Grow Together'.

"This also perfectly describes the strengthening relationship between our management and operational staff and the Kasto implementation teams both in the UK and Germany."

As a footnote, Ernst Wagner, managing director of Kasto in Milton Keynes explained, "All our products, including sawing machines as well as storage systems, are built in-house by us in our two German factories, ensuring on-time, accurate, trouble-free turnkey handover.

"We have installed around 1,750 systems worldwide in the warehousing sector over the last 25 years and it is noteworthy that they have been bought by around 650 customers. In other words, once a company buys such a system, they often go on to buy two, three, four or more, as the benefits become clear very quickly.

"Particularly in the UK, where land and building costs are high, the benefits of 3D storage in towers are massive, freeing up areas for other activities and perhaps even avoiding or delaying the need for the user to relocate. Overlaid on these advantages is a reduction in operational costs through improved logistics."

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