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Back to the Future: Retrofitting warehouse automation

17 August 2023

Russell Hutchinson, business development manager at Daifuku UK, discusses the often overlooked issue of managed retrofitting.

HOWEVER GOOD it is when first installed, any warehouse automation system will at some point require upgrading or replacing. And the success of any retrofit upgrade project lies in the timing and scope of the investment. In my experience, last minute interventions are often costly and ineffective. To address this, Daifuku has developed a highly structured approach that employs concepts developed jointly with customers to fully realise the potential of automation upgrades. This method also ensures the plant manager remains firmly in control and experiences minimal impact to existing operations.

Timing is everything

It is never too early to think about the long-term health and maintenance of an automation system. While we all know that the overall performance of a new warehouse system will improve once the technology has truly bedded down (something known as the ‘bathtub curve phenomenon’), even the most modern system will inevitably experience entropy – an inevitable erosion of performance delivery and reliability. 

New technologies, electronics, monitoring systems and plug-ins are developed every week. Therefore, it is important to continually monitor technological progress and the commercial demands of the business from the outset, in order to adapt the performance of components and controls. The optimisation potential of existing automation systems is enormous, especially with the challenges of sourcing discontinued components, rising energy costs, or difficult spare parts supply. Hence, a precise analysis of actual needs should be undertaken from the outset to develop a tailored "modernisation roadmap."

Retrofit chronology

In practice, the industrial computer hardware used for WCS/WMS systems is normally renewed first, around five to seven years after initial system integration. After ten years or so, when spare electronic components cannot be readily sourced, it is the time for renewal. In this process, key electrical systems and their peripheral components are replaced with the latest models.

Generally, this part of system maintenance is broken down into two phases; 

1. Ongoing maintenance & parts exchange.

2. Retrofit of the complete system. 

A long-term upgrade programme should take these different cycles into account. Careful planning is therefore an essential criterion for modernisation to minimise disruption to ongoing operations.

Retrofitting is usually done in a step-by-step process. Customers cannot usually stop their entire warehousing or distribution centre operation while upgrades are carried out, so we plan meticulously around the facility, scheduling specific upgrades to minimise disruption. This approach works well for customers, as they can plan budgets to accommodate any scheduled maintenance or upgrade work.

Joined-up upgrades

Upgrading any automation system is never done in isolation as changing one element can affect the entire logistics function. Rising energy prices and outdated components drive up warehouse costs, so modernisation is understandably attractive to many logistics managers. 

Modern components and drives are very efficient and can reduce energy consumption considerably. For example, Daifuku’s intelligent controller optimises the movement of stacker cranes to achieve smooth and minimum movement. This maximises energy efficiency and prolongs machine life. 

A UK client of ours – a well-known clothing brand – is currently replacing all 17 of its stacker cranes, which are now over 25 years old. Working to a meticulous plan, we are currently replacing these units in two distinct phases to minimise disruption to the business.

The bigger picture - process optimisation 

We understand that in order to fully exploit the potential of any legacy automation system, the technology, processes and workflows must be critically examined as part of a complete picture.  

The best approaches to optimisation arise from close cooperation with the customer in developing an individual maintenance and modernisation programme. This partnership can often result in further tasks that go beyond purely technical issues – sometimes transforming the performance of a warehouse or factory from ‘average’ to ‘world-class’. 

Visit Daifuku’s Retrofitting page to learn more about our approach to system modernisation, related advice, and offerings.

For more information, visit https://www.daifuku.com/solution/intralogistics/