Warehouse Automation and Mobile Racking are NOT the same thing. We explain why…
A recent article written by one of our local competitors is headed ‘Storage Automation in Warehousing’ and goes on to enthuse over the obvious advantages of mobile racking.
However, this is misleading. Automation can be defined as ‘the technology by which a process or procedure is performed without human assistance’.
While mobile racking is by its very nature mechanised, it is seldom automated, since it invariably requires considerable human activity to operate. This is not to say it cannot be automated – it has been done, but never, to our knowledge in Southern Africa.
Let us look at the way in which mobile racking functions in real life:
Mobile racking consists of more or less conventional pallet racking mounted onto electrically powered bases which move laterally on rails embedded into the floor to open up an access aisle for handling equipment only where needed. The huge space-saving advantage of this is of course that one obviates the need for multiple fork-lift aisles.
In its simplest form, the movement of the racks is controlled singly by means of push-buttons on the end of each mobile.
This is OK for smaller systems, especially in ambient temperatures, but with larger systems, and where the operator should not need to leave his cab in a freezer, this movement can be controlled at a distance by IR remote controllers.
The next step towards ‘automation’ is our Cascade control system which incorporates PLC driven controls whereby all racks move in unison as a block to open up the aisle where required. This can also be activated by Radio remote, and the system incorporates or supports many other features such as additional safety measures, auto-aisle clear function, night park, HMI (human machine interface), etc.
The product in such larger systems will normally be supervised by a computer based WMS (warehouse management system) which knows exactly where every pallet in the store has been placed, and is thus able to direct the operator, either by means of printed pick lists, or ideally by instructions via a truck-mounted remote monitor.
This is a fairly sophisticated way of doing things – but still does not qualify as ‘automation’. So the next step is to link the system PLC to the host computer via a RS422 port on the main control panel and allow the WMS itself to directly control rack movement, as determined by the needs of the operation at hand. Although seldom installed in SA, this has been done for some customers.
Regardless of the foregoing technical enhancements, the insertion and retrieval of product in and out of the racking remains the job of a human body operating a piece of mobile handling equipment – so system cannot truly be said to be automatic.
So what is warehouse automation?
To achieve actual automation there will be no bodies at all in the warehouse or store. The pallets will be handled in and out by computer driven machinery in the form of automated pallet stackers instructed by the WMS and guided by GPS and other electronic means. Ideally these will move loads only to and from main gangways, from where movement of pallets will be undertaken by AGVs (automatic guided vehicles) or automated conveyors.
This truly does constitute ‘automatic’ warehousing, and Storax has installed a test system in Europe.
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