In order to maximise operation efficiency, healthcare supplies specialist Bunzl has replaced its existing fleet of VNA order pickers with Jungheinrich EKX 513 Kombis equipped with RFID technology at its ­distribution centre in Leicester and at other stores in the UK and Ireland

The EKX 513 Kombis are equipped with state-of-the-art RFID technology that will enable Bunzl’s warehouse management system to automatically guide them to the right location in the aisles at all times.

Bunzl supplies a comprehensive range of disposable healthcare consumables – products such as gloves, aprons, bandages, facemasks and gowns – to the healthcare sector including hospitals, retirement and nursing homes and surgeries and clinics.

The Leicester facility supplies clients such as hospitals and other healthcare centres from Oxford to Sheffield and the previous fleet of order pickers in operation at the store had grown tired and were no longer able to keep pace with the high throughput levels at the facility.

“We clearly needed to invest in new materials handling equipment and processes”, says Bunzl’s operations director, Mike Parsonage, “and we were very impressed with the kind of productivity gains the Jungheinrich products offered”.

The RFID warehouse navigation unit which is built in to Bunzl’s new truck has been designed to enable the operator to receive picking instructions from the company’s warehouse management system. Once the instructions have been transmitted, the operator simply accepts the command via a terminal and the warehouse management system automatically guides the truck to the location in which the goods are stored. The truck travels via the shortest route and at the optimal speed to ensure that energy consumption is minimised.

The operator needs only to engage the safety controls on the truck and can then relax while the truck is directed to the right spot within the aisle. The truck commences its semi-automatic approach to the storage location and as soon as the correct location has been reached, a light on the side of the truck signals to the driver whether he has to pick the order from the left or right. The result is a considerable improvement in picking accuracy as the operator cannot go to the wrong location. Picking mistakes are, therefore significantly reduced.

Very narrow aisle (VNA) order pickers have, traditionally, been guided by magnets buried in the warehouse floor to initiate control of the trucks. However, such systems do not offer the flexibility, safety and operational efficiency benefits of RFID transponders which are no bigger than a thumbnail and are used to guide the new order pickers. They have been inserted into the floor within the aisles of Bunzl’s Leicester distribution centre.

The RFID system offers a number of safety benefits. The transponders can sense if the truck is approaching the end of an aisle or a transfer aisle within the racking and will slow the truck’s speed accordingly. The truck’s travel speed will also be optimised to suit the standard of the floor over which it is travelling – for example if a part of the warehouse floor is uneven, the truck’s speed will be reduced automatically. In addition, if, when travelling with the operator platform raised, the truck is approaching a height obstacle likely to endanger the operator, the truck is brought to a controlled stop. If the operator attempts to raise the platform to a height likely to bring him into collision with, say, the roof of the facility or some other object, the lift function cuts out.

To minimise disruption, the new trucks were delivered and installed over a weekend and the RFID system is expected to go live later this year once the company’s warehouse management system has been upgraded.

“We are already benefiting from increased throughputs, lower running costs and higher productivity,” says Mike Parsonage.”

Bunzl has been so impressed with the new RFID equipped Kombi’s it has introduced the trucks at its other stores at Manchester, Enfield, Bristol and in County Antrim in Ireland.