Part and parcel

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Industrial products distributor, ERIKS, has boosted the productivity of its order fulfilment operations by 110%, following a logistics network transformation that combines smart software with well-integrated small-parts automation at its new, advanced UK distribution hub in Oldbury.

ERIKS is one of the UK and Ireland’s largest specialist suppliers of industrial parts and products, providing a vast array of components and services to a broad spectrum of industrial applications, from chemical plants, manufacturing lines and power generation sites, to varied production operations for small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

Over the last 80 years the company has built an enviable reputation for its expertise in areas from bearings & lubrication, power transmission and fluid power, to transfer & control, flow control and industrial MRO. All the critical elements needed to keep industry running smoothly.

The cornerstone of the business is its market-leading attention to customer service, with high availability, order accuracy and fast, next-day delivery. Now, following a £20m investment programme to support growth and boost service performance still further, ERIKS has recently opened a state-of-the-art Fulfilment Centre of Expertise (FCE) in Oldbury, West Midlands – the centre piece of a new direct to customer delivery model.

Direct approach

Andy Neville, General Manager – Supply Chain Operations at ERIKS UK & Ireland, explains: “We ship over 1500 orders a day, mainly to the UK and Ireland. We had been operating a traditional hub and spoke logistics model, serving the service centre network across the country and they would perform the final mile delivery to the customer. However, we wanted to future-proof the quality of our customer service, with greater availability, capacity, accuracy, and speed. So now, with the direct model, all orders are despatched from the FCE in Oldbury by 21.30, with the majority of orders arriving with the customer the following day before mid-morning.”

The purpose-built, 11,000 sq m highly automated FCE replaces two warehouses – Halesowen and Dudley – offering ERIKS a 53% increase in warehouse capacity, with space for up to 11,200 Euro pallets. However, as 80% of the stock keeping units (SKUs) within the system are small parts, the beating heart of the fulfilment operation is the advanced, hi-tec small parts picking operation, designed and installed by warehouse automation specialists, Invar Group.

Working to a tight schedule, in January 2021 Invar Group software developers and integration engineers set about installing over 400m of high-speed tote conveyors, linking 21 small-parts storage vertical lifts in a finely tuned automated picking system capable of processing 1,500 orders per hour. The design groups three vertical lifts per picking cell, making seven cells in total, with one person operating each cell. These vertical lifts are large, 12m high per unit with a capacity to hold up to 100 large trays – each tray measures 3.5m x 1.5m, and in some instances may be divided up into over 200 compartments, giving over 60,000 locations in the current design.

30% reduction in pick times

Through the clever application of system and software design automated storage capacity for small parts has been increased by 500% and pick times have been reduced by 30%, resulting in a 110% increase in productivity.

Owing to smooth Invar programming, totes are optimally routed between picking cells in accordance to orders received from the WMS. As a tote approaches a vertical lift an appropriate tray within the unit is called into sequence, to be presented to the picker as the tote arrives – perfectly synchronised to maximise performance.

Near perfect order accuracy is achieved through the use of barcode scanning at key points of the goods-in, put-away, picking and fulfilment processes, and weighing scales within the conveyor system help to verify pick accuracy. Also, pick-to-light technology is deployed across all of the vertical lifts to guide the operator to the exact location on a tray to pick from, speeding the process and enhancing pick accuracy.

Automated ‘simplicity’

Describing the automated ‘simplicity’ of the picking process, Andy Neville, says: “Invar has designed the user interface with the handheld to be very simple. The handheld screen is coloured differently depending on the process you are completing. When you are directed to pick an item, the screen is coloured pink, if the screen is yellow, inventory is for storage. This allows us to mix the two tasks together giving even greater efficiency.

“The processing of orders for our customers has to be accurate, therefore we require each item to be scanned to confirm it’s the right product before being placed into the tote. As well as barcode scanning, the storage lifts contain a pick-to-light system which highlights the storage compartment to pick from. Then further checks are made before an order enters the packing area,” says Andy Neville.

He continues: “We have collected all the weights and dimensions of our core range, so the total order can then be weight checked by the integrated weighing machine in the conveyor system. And, once these checks are completed, further checks are made by the packing department before an order leaves the FCE”.

Invar Group completed the installation and integration of the small-parts system in early June 2021, just six months after engaging with the project. And there is plenty of room for expansion. At present just 65% of the current facility is used and forward planning has allowed space for further storage – future proofing expansion of the business.

Economies of scale

“By moving to a central distribution model, we have gained economies of scale, enabling us to use automation to great effect. And by reducing manual tasks and improving productivity around the whole operation, we can now deploy more people to checking the quality of incoming goods,” says Andy Neville.

The initiative has also allowed ERIKS to create a centre of excellence for quality control, bringing more customer services inhouse and centralising expertise, to provide services such as certificates of conformity, product marking or additional value-added services for customers.

Andy Neville, concludes: “The efficiencies achieved through the FCE provide significant benefits – in addition to the improvements made in customer service, through greater product availability, increased order accuracy and faster deliveries.”

Continuing its commitment to ERIKS beyond installation, Invar Group provides a full maintenance and software support service to the business, ensuring reliable operational performance throughout the year.

Further independent advice on transforming operational performance in the warehouse can be found at: www.Invargroup.com