CHEPís Global Approach to Automation: Developing a New Blueprint for Pallet Depots, Inspection and Repair
Advanced Automation: CHEP looks to automation for improved consistency of quality and safety across its worldwide network.
By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 2/1/2018
As the world’s largest private pallet pooler, CHEP knows that to stay ahead of the competition it must lead in technology and innovation. This commitment is behind CHEP’s recent efforts to push the bounds of manufacturing, inspection and repair automation for wood pallets.
Two examples are the recently opened state-of-the-art pallet repair and service center in South Ockendon in the United Kingdom and the automated digital inspection (ADI) pallet sorting technology deployed at its Atlanta facility in the United States. Given its global network, CHEP enjoys a scale that enables it to glean best practices in automation from around the world.
“Our automation journey is a continuous evolution,” explained Christopher Young, senior vice president of supply chain for CHEP North America. “Because of our size and scale, we can leverage global best practices and learn from region to region, even though we might have different platforms in those regions.
“The journey for automation is about driving standardized processes and taking into account the needs of each region, as well as accounting for the different pallet designs and regional specifications,” Young continued. He has served the company for over 15 years, having spent most of his career in logistics, planning and operations.
“Automation is allowing the plants to operate more efficiently and provide greater consistency,” he summarized.
Cutting Edge Technology Installed in CHEP’s New UK Facility
Last October CHEP announced the opening of its highly automated plant in the United Kingdom. The company invested more than £2 million ($2.77 million) in installing some of the most advanced automatic fault-detection and repair equipment available. CHEP decided to completely overhaul this existing facility as part of its strategic plant optimization assessment study.
The optimized South Ockendon facility boasts the latest laser system for examining individual pallets for damage in the sorting process. It works in conjunction with an automatic cutter to spot and remove broken pallet components. Based on information provided by the ADI system, a robotic arm cuts and takes off the element to be replaced. It then returns the pallet to the repair bench where the operator completes the repair.
Other noteworthy automation features of the UK site include roller nailer technology and moisture content sensors. Rollers ensure that no nails protrude more than 3 mm (1/8”) above the top board of any pallets. As for moisture detection, the line employs technology which probes the top deck of pallets. If the moisture content of a particular pallet exceeds a specified threshold, it is diverted.
“The key areas where the automation will deliver these productivity and efficiency improvements are inspection, repair and paint stenciling,” stated Helen Lane, CHEP UK & Ireland, vice-president and country general manager, at the time of the announcement. “Customers will benefit from improved levels of platform consistency delivered by this increased automation and reduced manual intervention required in the conventional inspect and repair process.”
The UK facility provides a very high level of automation,” Young said. “Operators are not required to make a lot of decisions pertaining to the condition of the pallets.” The automated digital inspection not only determines whether the pallet is good or bad, but what components of the pallet need to be removed. Pallets then go through robotic automated board removal before being presented to the operator. Pallet repair workers simply replace the component and re-nail it. Then the repaired units are sent through the automated paint and stencil process before going out to the customer.
“Over the years we have established standards globally around the types of processes we have and the equipment we have in plants,” Young explained. “We have certain types of equipment that process different tiers of volume. What is standard across all plants and all new installations is what we call our global finishing line.”
The global finishing line refers to the automated process of painting and inkjet stenciling of repaired pallets performed without manual intervention.
Beyond efficiency and labor savings, new upgrades to the existing South Ockendon plant will assist CHEP in reaching some of its environmental and sustainability goals. CHEP stated, “As part of CHEP’s ongoing commitment to reduce its impact on the environment, the new service center also incorporates advanced sustainable solutions such as rain water harvesting for the pallet washing area, the installation of LED lighting and improvements in waste segregation. The uplift in volume and productivity at the new plant will generate further network efficiencies, with a potential to eliminate over 800,000 truck kms/year and the associated CO2 emissions in the coming years.”
Automation in North America
CHEP recently opened its Atlanta plant to a tour for Pallet Enterprise. “The automated digital inspection is really identifying if the pallet is good or bad,” Young said. “It is also reducing the reliance on the operator, so the operator doesn’t have to make 100% of the decisions. The ADI captures a majority of the defects we are looking for, and the operator is only looking for any additional defects. It helps reduce operator fatigue and improves overall throughput.”
Young stressed, however, that the Atlanta plant is not the most automated plant the company currently operates in the United States. “Atlanta is relatively indicative of our legacy network,” he said. Good pallets are removed from the stackers for shipment to customers while damaged pallets are moved by forklift to the repair area for processing. Aside from sorting, the key area of automation pertains to painting. “That’s really automated, and then there is a manual stencil at the end.”
New CHEP facilities feature end-to-end integration. “We take ADI, we take the sort line, and we connect it directly to repair,” Young said. “We call it a fully integrated line.” Once a bad pallet is identified, it is conveyed directly to the repair line, a process which eliminates forklift traffic. From there, the repair operator can take the pallet directly from the conveyor, repair it, and then place it back on the conveyor. Repaired pallets continue through the global finishing line, which includes auto-paint and inkjet stenciling. “For new installations that meet our criteria, we are installing automated board removal to the line as well,” he added.
Asked about vendor selection, Young reported that CHEP utilizes an array of suppliers for its various equipment needs such as repair tables, conveyors, paint lines, board removal systems and more. “We work across a variety of vendors, and we do that globally,” Young said. “We are constantly trying to develop additional suppliers as we look to invest in our worldwide network.” He declined to single out any particular equipment suppliers they use.
Improvements from Automation
With automation, Young noted, CHEP typically enjoys overall improvements in productivity and safety. That is precisely what happened in Atlanta after the automated digital inspection was introduced. The ADI has reduced variation while driving efficiency and decreasing worker fatigue.
Another essential benefit of automation has been the elimination of forklift usage in the fully integrated lines, which CHEP sees as a critical win. “If we can reduce the overall forklift traffic in a facility, it is a huge overall safety benefit,” Young said, noting the elimination of risks associated with interactions between pedestrians and lift trucks.
In the case of the new UK facility, the anticipated productivity improvements are impressive. According to CHEP, the capacity is expected to increase from 4.1 million pallets to around 6.2 million pallets annually, while maintaining the same staffing level of approximately 85 full-time employees.
“The implementation of automation throughout the network is an ongoing journey,” Young concluded. “It is part of a multiple year plan we have in place, and we are constantly looking for new and better ways to process pallets through the network. We are looking not only to improve our processes within our plants but to improve our overall level of service to the customer and be more efficient across the board with an emphasis on safety within our plants. So, it is really an evolution.”
CHEP’s experience demonstrates the importance of automation in improving product consistency as well as in boosting plant productivity and safety. It also underscores the potential of embracing new technologies such as ADI which can further drive efficiency and reduce labor impacts.
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