Automated Storage – The Future of Warehousing
Acquiring sufficient space and using it as thoroughly and effectively as possible has long been the average warehouse owner’s two main problems. Despite various innovations, the picking and packing of goods have remained essentially manual tasks – a factor that has tended to contribute to the inefficient use of the available floor space. Fortunately, as in many other industries, there has been steady progress in developing automated solutions in the storage industry. However, to arrive at this point has required a series of minor changes during the years leading up to it.
In the early days, a warehouse was little more than a collection of shelves loaded with boxes. The system required workers to memorise the location of the various stored items and access them with the aid of a ladder. The process was inherently slow, even with experienced warehouse staff. Nevertheless, the system was able to cope with the level of consumer demand at the time. Though hardly an automated storage system, the introduction of pallets and the forklift truck led to a vast increase in productivity. Furthermore, the increased reach provided by the lift trucks meant shelving could be built higher, adding considerably to the available space.
Despite increased vertical space, the need for aisles meant a large portion of total floor space was used purely for access rather than for storing stock items. Even though the introduction of compact and highly-manoeuvrable forklifts led to narrower aisles, the area required for human operators remained a problem that only automated storage systems could effectively overcome.
Enter the Pallet Mole!
Most garden owners regard moles as pests. Nevertheless, by copying their remarkable ability to burrow beneath things, engineers have developed a machine that can burrow its way beneath pallets on a rack and transport them to and fro as required. The result was a device that could replace the forklifts and their driver to provide a simple but effective type of automated storage system that a single operator can control with a handheld device.
The mole is an electric cart that runs on rails beneath the pallets. The cart acts like a mobile jack. It has a deck that can be raised to retrieve and transport a pallet and lowered to deposit it in a vacant space. In a semi-automatic installation, a forklift will still be necessary to move the pallet mole between the different levels of the racking. However, by integrating a couple of additional components into the basic system, the result is an automated storage setup in which the movement of a pallet mole between shelves can also be managed remotely. In this configuration, a single trained operator can even control the activities of several pallet moles simultaneously.
While the advantages of a semi-automatic system speak for themselves, the escalating demand for consumer goods continues to pressure warehouses to become more productive. Consequently, many facilities have been installing systems that take automation to a whole new level. A combination of conveyors, pallet moles, transfer cars, vertical lift units, and intelligent software provides a fully automated storage system in which one individual can manage everything from packing and picking to inventory control with a PC.