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Extensive modernization of ODU’s automated mini-load system safeguards availability


Lean Management integrated in intralogistics

The automated mini-load system (MLS) is the heart of ODU Steckverbindungssysteme GmbH & Co. KG. However, after 14 years in service, the system was on the verge of meltdown: Downtimes of up to 27 hours paralyzed the entire company. An extensive system upgrade undertaken by viastore systems now ensures that the MLS, which was built by a third-party supplier, can once again be relied upon.

“This must never happen again!” says Philipp Hossfeld, Head of Assembly and Industrial Engineering at ODU Steckverbindungssysteme GmbH & Co. KG. It’s not likely he will ever forget this particular day: The cross conveyor, which connects the aisles in the MLS with the pick stations, was out of order due to a broken shaft. There was no replacement part in stock, and there was no support available from the company that had supplied the system. For a whole 27 hours the warehouse was shut down. “We lost more than €500,000 because we could not supply our customers,” recalls Hossfeld. After all, the MLS is the heart of the company. Both finished goods and components, sold either as individual parts or as mounting kits, are stored here and in addition the warehouse also serves as a supply depot for pre-manufacture and assembly at ODU. So if the warehouse is at a standstill, then this affects not only the shipping area, but the entire production as well. The company manufactures connectors for the transmission of power and signals for a wide range of applications – from food processors to industrial electronics and submarines.

No finished goods in reserve

“The warehouse was built in 1999 and two new aisles were added in 2003 – so now we have a total of four aisles,” explains Philipp Hossfeld. This means that the MLS offers 14,000 containers storage locations; approximately 40,000 items are in stock. Sideways to the storage area, there are three pick stations that are connected to the rack aisles via a double transverse shuttle car. “From here our Assembly area is supplied with the items required for a customer order as a set,” says Hossfeld. “These parts are picked into a box and transported to the corresponding assembly team using our warehouse trolley – a handcart with a number of different rack levels.” As a matter of principle, ODU exclusively manufactures its products to order. “We have a total of 75,000 standard products and it is simply impossible to stockpile all of them,” emphasizes Hossfeld. “So for every finished product in the warehouse we have a customer order on hand.” This means that there is no reserve of finished products to cater for new orders if the MLS is not available. Only the “supermarkets” – small storage areas along the production line – provide a buffer with the required components – but this lasts only for one shift maximum.

Software and mechanical system were outdated

After about 14 years, the risk of this buffer no longer being sufficient was climbing: “We suffered more and more system shutdowns; sometimes the warehouse availability dropped below 80 percent,” Hossfeld describes the situation at that time. Wear took its toll on the mechanical parts and there were hardly any spares on the market to replace the installed components. The Siemens S5 control system was just as outdated as the material flow computer. And according to Philipp Hossfeld the warehouse management system was no longer up-to-date either. “Today we are certified according to medical and automotive standards. This means that features such as batch traceability play a much more important role now than back in the 1990s. In addition, the software has to meet ever higher demands in terms of speed, fill level and the variety of products. And last, but not least: System updates were no longer available,” he explains.

Condition analysis triggers upgrade schedule

It became increasingly clear that the MLS was in need of a major upgrade. To this end, the actual condition was analyzed, with ODU resorting to the help of viastore. The Stuttgart-based specialist in turnkey automated storage/retrieval systems and warehouse management systems (WMS) also offers extensive experience in the reconstruction, modernization and retrofit of existing logistics systems – also those from other suppliers. “Together with the experts of ODU, we analyzed the status quo during a workshop. Among other things, we examined which spare parts are still available and which have been discontinued. After ten years, usually a generational change has taken place especially in the field of control and drive technology,” explains Swen Mantel, Sales Manager for Retrofits and Modernization at viastore. Together workshop participants specified the necessary optimization points and summarized them in an upgrade roadmap. This roadmap then formed the basis of the system specifications.

Support – an important selection criterion

At the end of the selection process, two suppliers were neck and neck. “Following the experience we had had, support was a very important factor for us, of course,” recalls Monika Reinhart from ODU Logistics, who closely assisted with the project. “viastore had invited us to Stuttgart-Feuerbach earlier, where we had the opportunity to take a close look at the remote maintenance options. This was a very strong argument in favor of viastore.” But it was not only due to hard facts that ODU wanted the upgrade to be carried out by viastore, as Hossfeld admits: “It was also gut feeling. After all, we had already gained experience with viastore when preparing the specifications – in such a project it is crucial that the chemistry is right between the partners.”

Manual warehouse as a “test project”

The first step of modernization, however, did not begin in the MLS, but in the conventional, manually operated pallet warehouse which offers 1,700 storage locations and serves as storage for raw materials, semi-finished and finished materials. “We used the introduction of viastore’s warehouse management system viad@t as an opportunity to restructure the entire logistics processes in the company,” says Hossfeld. For managing manual warehouses the viad@t system includes, for example, a forklift control system which is now used at ODU too – previously the pallet warehouse was managed via lists. This allowed for a two-step changeover to the new WMS, as Klaus Wenz, IT Project Manager of viastore systems, explains: “We converted the manual warehouse to viad@t roughly two months before the transition in the MLS took place. In this way we could test communications between the WMS and the ERP system used at ODU without compromising the performance of the MLS which bears the brunt of intralogistics.”

The warehouse trolley – a special case

With this security, viastore went about the actual job of upgrading the MLS: “For the transition to viad@t, we could largely use the standard software and only had to make a few individual adjustments during fine-tuning,” Monika Reinhart recalls. The warehouse trolley required the biggest adjustment effort, since it transports not only products from the MLS to the assembly area and vice versa, but on its way it also takes components from the turning shop to the electroplating area, for example. “Strictly speaking, these items and transports have nothing to do with the actual inventory management, but were to be indicated on the handheld pda of the trolley operator,” explains Klaus Wenz. Therefore, the WMS was adjusted so that the manufacturing documents can be recorded at the stations and managed by viad@t. “The operator now scans the goods regardless of whether he takes them aboard at the MLS or somewhere else along the way, and receives corresponding transport orders on his pda, telling him where to deliver them,” says Klaus Wenz.

Smooth changeover

To ensure that the transition to the new WMS would proceed as smoothly as possible, viastore trained all ODU warehouse operators over two days. “After this we were able to start immediately,” says Grozyna Watula, Team Leader MLS at ODU, clearly delighted. “Our colleagues got to grips with the system very well, and at the same time it also offers us a couple of new opportunities.” For example, from her workstation the team leader can now make queries about warehouse items, about the articles themselves and the number in stock, for example. The consignment goods – items that still belong to the supplier, but which ODU can already access – must no longer be stored separately. “With viad@t that’s no longer necessary, the goods can now even be stored in one and the same container with other items, kept apart only by appropriate separators,” explains IT Project Manager Wenz.

Comprehensive renovation of mechanic parts and control system

But quite a lot was also undertaken as far as the hardware was concerned: The drives on all storage/retrieval machine (SRM) axes – carriage, hoist unit, load handling device – as well as all on-board control cabinets were replaced. The entire facility was equipped with new control technology; the Simatic S5 was replaced by the latest S7. Similarly, the data transfer to the SRM and the transverse shuttle car was updated and is now done via Profibus optical data couplers. Moreover the incremental position measuring systems were replaced by absolute measuring systems: “This saves us the previously necessary reference travel and the measurement is now much more reliable and accurate,” says Georg Maier, Team Leader Engineering at ODU, who is now also in charge of MLS maintenance. “Another effect of the upgrade is that with the S7 and Profibus we now have the option to access every individual sensor when performing remote maintenance,” Swen Mantel describes one more significant advantage of the new control technology. For the period of modernization, ODU briefly shut down the MLS. “To maintain our delivery capability we calculated in advance the items required for this period. Then we stored these articles in an alternate warehouse, in the pallet warehouse and in the supermarkets in production,” says Monika Reinhart.

High system availability without fail

Then, equipped with state-of-the-art technology, the system resumed operations. “The start-up went very well,” says Hossfeld, clearly satisfied. “We have seen some teething problems that are simply inevitable with such a comprehensive modernization, but the support from viastore has proved invaluable. Whenever we call, we get competent help immediately.” So Philipp Hossfeld can draw a positive conclusion. Above all, he can now rest assured that the MLS offers high availability at all times thanks to modern technology and efficient support.

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