When UK retailer ASDA needed to automate their warehouse in 2012, they looked to Swisslog and AutoStore™ to design a materials handling solution. This is their success story.
When a supermarket business is as extensive and diversified as ASDA is, warehouse automation and a well-functioning materials-handling solution is essential. Fortunately, when the time came to upgrade and innovate to meet their customers’ needs, the teams from Swisslog and AutoStore were there to assist.
The British retailer has a history that stretches as far back as the 1920s and early beginnings in the form of a small chain of butcher shops. Today, ASDA forms part of the Walmart Group – the largest retail chain in the world. Over the past 100 years, the company has gone from strength to strength, with ASDA now selling over 75,000 products, including groceries, clothing, household goods, and electronics.
Headquartered in Leeds, England, the company currently employs 180,000 staff members and sells products via its 550 brick-and-mortar stores across Britain. ASDA serves about 18 million customers per week, and as is the case with most leading retailers, many of its customers shop online.
As ASDA switched to a multi-format, multi-channel retailing environment, fundamental changes to the supply chain became necessary. As their customers’ product choices grew, the retailer had to increase their flexibility, capability, and productivity.
Not wanting to take any risks with this critical process, the retailer looked to Swisslog to design an innovative, automated materials-handling solution within one of its most complex distribution centers.
“The key factor was to re-engineer the facility, building a space-efficient and ergonomic materials-handling application that successfully integrated with the existing operation,” says James Sharples, Managing Director of Swisslog in the UK.
“The Swisslog design team made great efforts to understand the needs of the business and to customise the AutoStore system to meet the specific requirements of ASDA,” he continues. “It was essential that the system would be able to grow in order to accommodate expansion.”
Before installing the AutoStore system in 2012, load cranes had to be removed from the area, and builders had to install a robust mezzanine level on which to construct the system.
Swisslog worked with ASDA during each phase of this massive project, from the design to the installation of the new, automated system. The Swiss material-handling experts still provide support, as the retailer continues to expand the system to accommodate changing requirements.
The company decided to invest £15.2 million in the AutoStore system, which is the largest of its kind in the UK. The investment was worth every penny: the picking rate of the existing system was doubled, and the team was happy to discover that the new solution had an accuracy rate of 99.8%.
The initial construction and assembly of the AutoStore grid and workstations took just seven weeks to complete. At the time, the ASDA warehouse had 164 Robots and 70,000 Bins spread over an area of 1,415 square meters (15,230 square feet).
Pallet loads of in-bound goods are conveyed to one of six decant stations, where a worker transfers products from a pallet into the AutoStore bins. Robots place the filled Bins on top of one another in the grid. This holds the Bins and serves as a track for the Robots along which to travel. A wireless system controls the battery-operated Robots and moves the Bins to where they need to be.
The Robots present a constant stream of Bins to the picking port. As the Bins are stored on top of one another, the Robots have to do a bit of digging. With their help, specific goods are brought to the surface as and when they’re needed.
Bins that contain faster-moving merchandise are generally stored near the top of the grid, while the slower-moving merchandise naturally sinks to the bottom. When digging for a specific item, the Robots will temporarily store the Bins that were on top of the required one on nearby stacks.
The Robots are always working ahead of the employees operating the picking ports, so there are no interruptions in the workflow when the warehouse team members collate orders for store delivery.
The site can process a large number of orders for delivery. Employees use touch-screen computers to indicate to the system when they’ve selected the required number of products to fulfill a specific order, prompting the Robots to return the Bin to the grid. Once the store’s order has been completed, the employees put the items on the conveyor for shipping.
The new AutoStore system has proved incredibly valuable for the ASDA business and its employees. “The result is warehousing at peak efficiency,” notes Everett. “The AutoStore system reduces unused space and maximizes storage capacity, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency.”
The employees have also welcomed the state-of-the-art ergonomic features of the workstations, which reduce physical lifting. These stations also make it possible for the workers to scan and register the loads and dispose of waste and cardboard with maximum efficiency.
“The AutoStore system is extremely flexible and entirely reliable,” Everett concludes.
“The system could be installed in a phased way without disrupting ASDA's ongoing operation.”
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