Seamlessly connecting production and distribution in a deep freeze environment

THE CUSTOMER AND THEIR REQUIREMENTS

United States Cold Storage (USCS) can safely lay claim to founding the refrigeration and cold storage industry. The company traces its roots back to 1889 when its forefather, The American Ice Company, began harvesting ice from frozen lakes and transporting it with horses and buggies. In 1920 it changed its name to USCS and has been at the forefront of the industry ever since, providing refrigerated storage and fully integrated third party logistics solutions for food companies worldwide.
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Today, USCS operates 36 different storage facilities in 12 different states and manages a logistics network that serves some of the largest food producers in the country. The company’s 2 000+ employees manage cold storage environments encompassing almost a million pallet positions.

When one of the world’s largest food companies was expanding its ice cream production facility and wanted to add a new distribution center to the site, USCS was the natural choice to build and operate it.

To be successful, USCS needed to address two key requirements. First, it needed to safely and efficiently transport the final product from the production facility to the distribution center located across a roadway. In the distribution center, USCS needed a system for storing ice cream in a holding area for 24 hours and then dispensing it to the manual operators who move it to either long-term storage or shipping. Smart design of the distribution center was critical. USCS wanted to limit the amount of distance travelled by manual operators in order maximize throughput with fewer workers and limit their exposure to the harsh, -20°F deep-freeze environment.
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To design and build its new facility, USCS reached out to two other industry leaders – Primus Builders and Swisslog. Primus Builders was hired to construct the new distribution center. Swisslog’s innovative automation technologies would make it a state-ofthe- art facility. “USCS is not one to shy away from trying something new and innovative,” says Mike Lynch, Vice President of Engineering for USCS. “Our newest warehouse in Covington is our first plant-attached warehouse (and) our first highly automated warehouse, employing a sophisticated inbound product pallet handling system, AGVs, and automated storage and retrieval cranes.”

THE SOLUTION

Bringing its expertise in automation and temperature controlled environments, Swisslog helped USCS address its challenges. It implemented and engineered an innovative, automation solution that seamlessly connects production with distribution while maximizing efficiency of operation.

Pallets of ice cream are transported from production to the distribution center through a corridor elevated 25 feet above ground level. This ensures swift movement of pallets in a controlled environment and avoids interference with truck traffic on the facility grounds.

The 336 000 square foot distribution center features a unique “butterfly” configuration that facilitates a highly efficient way of holding and dispensing product. With this configuration, product arriving is stored automatically in a temporary racking system that accommodates 4 000 pallet positions along one side of a 550- footlong aisle. After holding for 24 hours, pallets are then automatically retrieved and dispensed on the opposite side of the aisle. From there, they are manually moved to long-term storage or shipping.

The whole process maximizes efficiency for USCS, moving product from production to holding and then dispensing it at a rate of 85 pallets/hour.
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PALLET PICKUP FROM PRODUCTION

Swisslog‘s solution begins at the output of the production facility. Final pallets of ice cream are picked up by one of two Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV‘s), using on-board conveyor. The Swisslog AGVs move along a defined route from the palletizing station to the in-feed section. There, they unload the pallets. At this point the product is scanned and ready to move to storage and/or distribution.

AGVs provide a smart alternative to manual transport. They offer reliable, on-time delivery that does not hold up production – each is programmed using an optimal transport strategy. Additionally, with manual forklifts already operating in the palletizing section, the use of programmed AGVs reduces the risk of collision, enhancing overall safety without requirement of manual intervention.

IN-FEED AND CONVEYOR CORRIDOR

A 350-foot-long, elevated corridor connects the production facility with USCS’s distribution center. The corridor is raised 25 feet above ground level to allow for safe passage of trucks below. The elevated corridor serves two purposes. First, it keeps the pallets within a temperature-controlled environment during their entire journey from production. Second, by moving pallets above ground they avoid blocking traffic below. Both trucks and products stay safely on the move.

Swisslog engineered a vertical lift to raise pallets up from the AGVs to the corridor. Within the corridor, pallets are moved using a ProMove chain conveyor. The ProMove conveyor is constructed specifically to operate in cold storage environments with high reliability and minimal intervention from personnel.
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AUTOMATIC STORAGE AND RETRIEVAL SYSTEM

The Automatic Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) features two Swisslog Vectura cranes specially designed for the USCS distribution center. The cranes pick up pallets from the elevated corridor and automatically store them in an aisle of temporary holding racks using a single deep fork unit. After holding for 24 hours, the same cranes retrieve the pallets and deliver them to the opposite side of the aisle for dispensing. The cranes use specially designed on-board conveyors that lift and tilt the pallets onto rack gravity flow lanes for pickup. Manually operated fork trucks then pick up the pallets and deliver them to one of 35 000 positions in long-term storage racks, or send them directly to shipping.

The “butterfly” configuration of the ASRS section allows for a hybrid manual/automated solution. While warehouse staff is required to move final product to shipping, the smart use of automation limits the amount of ground they must cover, minimizing the number of workers needed and their exposure to the elements. Each crane patrols a 270-foot length of the aisle and dispenses product to one of six designated geographic areas, putting it closest to that pallet’s final destination.

WM6 WAREHOUSE MANAGEMENT SYSTEM

USCS controls the entire process using WM6, the latest version of Swisslog’s Warehouse Manager software. WM6 acts as the cornerstone of the Swisslog automation solution, integrating people, processes and technology – from the AGVs at the palletizing station all the way through to the distribution center.

WM6 interfaces with both USCS’s warehouse system and the system at the ice cream production facility. When a pallet is delivered to the infeed station, before being raised onto the conveyor, WM6 scans it and records receipt of the product. Upon delivery into the distribution center, WM6 checks with USCS’s system to determine where the product goes into the storage. The process repeats when dispensing, with WM6 determining the optimal zone to place the pallet. The system provides comprehensive tracking and traceability for both USCS and its client while enhancing efficiency, accuracy and reliability of their operations.
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MEETING TOMORROW’S CHALLENGES

USCS’s facility in Covington is its most automated location yet. It represents another area of leadership in cold storage for USCS. Manual processes have traditionally dominated the cold storage industry. However, with qualified workers becoming more rare and the use of cold storage facilities gaining in popularity, automated systems are ready to fill the gap.

The Covington site is a good example of how to incorporate automation. The distribution facility is closed for a 24-hour period on the weekends, while the production plant remains open. Using the hybrid (manual/automated) ASRS solution allows pallets to be automatically stored over the the weekend and then dispensed when the facility re-opens. Swisslog automation also helps to minimize workforce requirements when the distribution center is open.

Smart design and intelligent management systems minimize the amount of distance travelled by manual fork truck operators. This helps reduce the number of manual operators needed while still meeting USCS’s target throughput of 85 pallets per hour. USCS’s new distribution center broke ground in early 2014 and became fully operational in January 2015. It has since received a prestigious National Award of Merit from the Design-Build Institute of America, a testament to the shared vision and strong partnership shared between USCS, Primus Builders and Swisslog. Leveraging Swisslog’s innovative automation technology, as well as its expertise in temperature controlled solutions, USCS has opened a stateofthe- art facility that is meeting tomorrow’s challenges, today.

SWISSLOG (UK) LTD

Tel: 01527 551 600

www.swisslog.com

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