French apricot jam, local Finnish honey, cough drops and wholegrain crispbread: a roll container is being filled with groceries that will be shipped to anywhere in Finland within two days after receipt of order. The picking system at the Tuko Logistics Cooperative handles thousands of SKUs.
Tuko Logistics is located in the city of Kerava in Southern Finland and serves 40 wholesale stores, 1,000 grocery stores and 5,000 institutional kitchens daily.
The Tuko product selection includes some 28,000 products; the cooperative imports foodstuffs, vegetables and fruit, detergents and other articles from the international market. Tuko uses a terminal and distribution network that covers all of Finland and the cooperative also supports the operations of its members in the Baltic countries and Russia.
The strengths of the cooperative lie in their extensive product selection, affordable private label products and powerful logistics, which utilizes a modern control system which enables the real-time handling and monitoring of products all the way from receiving to shop shelves. This also allows the monitoring of product date information for complete traceability.
Automation increases efficiency of goods-to-person picking
Finnish shops have seen their product variety triple in the last decade and the products are now more refined. This variety of products spans from the limited selections of corner shops to the tens of thousands of products available in hypermarkets.
The product selection of a shop is generally dictated by the basic selection of the chain to which it belongs. This basic selection is then supplemented with products specific to the shop.
While products sell at different rates, the availability of favorites may be highly important to the consumer. Brands also gain an additional marketing benefit when they have a wide presence across store shelves.
“A single brand of cough drops may have fifteen different flavors; this translates to fifteen different products and EAN codes for logistics. As the number of product variants grows, the selection expands and the individual volumes of variants decrease”, says Kaarlo Svensson, Director of Logistics at Tuko.
“The ambient storage at Tuko has both highbay pallet storage and automated storage. In May 2013, Tuko moved over to Cimcorp gantry robot automation. The automatic goods-to-person storage and retrieval system is already used to pick the majority – about 70% – of the orders for the SKUs in Tuko’s ambient storerooms.
“We can choose which pallets we want to unload into the plastic totes in automated storage, which enables us to fully utilize our automation’s capacity. Right now we use it to store the slow-movers, which number about 7,000 individual SKUs in 50,000 plastic totes.”
Exceptional robotics and gripping technology
Tuko invested in automated robotic storage and retrieval as part of a larger survey of the development potential of logistics. Cimcorp was selected as their partner from a group of ten competitors.
“Cimcorp’s robot and gripping technology was different from the others. Their system could be implemented in a section of our existing storage space without disrupting deliveries to customers. The competing picking systems would have required more space”, says Miikka Heiskanen, Development Manager at Tuko.
To facilitate automation, shelves and other previous structures were cleared. The area was cordoned off with sheets, the floor levelled with concrete and the electrical system reworked.
The first of the four robot cells ordered by Tuko was initially assembled at Cimcorp for product customization and testing.
“This test cell was used for example, to make unloading and picking stations more ergonomic as determined by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and our own warehouse staff.”
The automated goods-to-person picking system has indeed improved workplace ergonomics in both pallet unloading and product picking. At the stage where products are unloaded from pallets into totes, the work surface can be adjusted by the worker. Similarly, the roll containers will lower to a more ergonomic height as they are loaded with products from the totes.
Non-stop customer support
Tuko was satisfied with Cimcorp’s delivery. The entire process was smooth from the purchasing decision to design, assembly and testing. Production was gradually moved from voice-controlled picking to automated goods-to-person picking. In its first week of use, the automated system handled approximately 500 SKUs.
“At the testing stage, we could not predict all the situations that would arise in everyday use. There were initially mechanical difficulties in moving the roll containers, for example.”
During the two years the automated system has been in use at Tuko, they have had constant and total customer support from Cimcorp. The Full Service agreement has guaranteed reliability and expertise for the ambient storage which means any issues or additional assistance has been available with no need for separate notices, and Tuko has had no need to recruit or train their own automation service personnel.
“This agreement ensures that a competent and committed service team is always on-site. We perform pre-emptive maintenance on a daily basis throughout the year and replace parts and update the software as necessary,” says Mikko Nurmi, Cimcorp Service Technician. Nurmi has worked on the robotics at Tuko from the start.
Return on investment
Bottlenecks have been eliminated from Tuko’s unloading and picking process, thanks to robotics. Barcode readers and weighing machines prevent mistakes in the process and ensure that logistics personnel know exactly what products and SKUs are contained in each tote, and where in storage these totes reside.
“The Cimcorp 3D Shuttle enables us to retrieve any one tote in floor-based storage efficiently and without delay,” says Heiskanen.
As is typical for robotic applications, the goals for automation at Tuko are to enhance process reliability and overall efficiency and to reduce costs. The Cimcorp 3D Shuttle robots allow the products to come to the picker – not vice versa, as is the case for conventional voice-controlled picking. Automation speeds up picking and directly reduces the man-hours needed.
“This investment will pay for itself,” says Svensson, summing things up.
Thanks to the continuous chain of order and delivery, consumers will have an easier time finding their favorite flavors in shops. This is what it’s all about, after all.
TEXT: TANJA HOVI PHOTOS: MATTI IMMONEN