Online shopping is on the rise, not only for clothing, books and electronic goods, but also in the steel trade. Fabricators are increasingly ordering materials with a simple mouse click to save time, cut costs and make very easy comparisons of different offers. But increased competition poses a challenge to their suppliers, who must not only have a broad range of materials at attractive prices, but also be able to make fast deliveries with a comprehensive array of services. De Cromvoirtse (Oisterwijk, The Netherlands), a Dutch steel wholesaler and contract manufacturer of sheet metal products, spotted this trend very early and took appropriate steps. Founded in 1982, their motto is “Metal – made to measure, fast” and they specialize in partially finished goods produced in small batches. They have operated an online portal since 2008 and now get about 70 percent of their orders through this channel. Customers use it to upload drawings and various specifications, and within two minutes they receive an automatically calculated quotation for production of the component in question.
The shop’s manufacturing capacity includes a number of laser cutting machines and folding presses. About 90 percent of their products are steel, Inox or aluminum sheet metal parts. The remainder are pipes and sections. They hold a strong position on the Dutch market as a manufacturer of custom-made parts in small quantities with a unique reputation for fast deliveries. “Most of our roughly 1,200 customers are small and medium-sized companies, like agricultural machine manufacturers, car body makers and machine builders,” says Janwillem Verschuuren, one of the two managing directors of De Cromvoirtse. “For them it often doesn’t pay to buy machines of their own and hire expert personnel, because they only have small production runs. As a rule, we can deliver laser-cut parts in 24 to 48 hours, folded sheet metal parts within a week.”
To serve the needs of their growing customer base reliably and quickly, they have not only automated their ordering process, they have also automated most of their production and operate machine tools around the clock, seven days a week – with 1.5 days fully unattended. Large stocks are a big factor in this operation: on average, they keep 400 to 500 tons of material in supply and use a state-of-the-art double-sided Uniline in-line storage system from KASTO Maschinenbau GmbH & Co. KG (Achern, Germany) with almost 1,000 storage locations that efficiently supplies sheet metal using special pallets for different materials and sizes, as well as for remnants. A fully automatic stacker crane travels between the two rows of the facility, storing and retrieving items as needed. “When we invested in a new warehouse, our choice quickly fell on this system,” recalls Verschuuren. “Other manufacturers offered us standard systems that were unsatisfactory, but KASTO worked with us right from the planning phase to develop new ideas for the design. They told us very clearly what would and wouldn’t work.”
For example, they seamlessly connected two flatbed laser cutting machines in a continuous material flow by installing two manipulators at the output stations of the Uniline storage system that use vacuum suction units to lift sheets from storage, place them on the shuttle tables and then remove the finished parts and remnants. “This permits fast, efficient and gentle handling of various materials,” explains Ronnie van den Hurk, the other managing director. “The stacker crane is equipped with two pallet stations to shorten cycle times and avoid empty runs. For each storage operation, there is always a retrieval operation happening at the same time.” The Uniline system substantially increased the capacity of the machine tools used in the shop and shortened the throughput times, but due to their booming online business and growing numbers of orders, it reached its limits after a few years.
The steel wholesaler revisited how to increase the performance of their storage facility. “Our first thought was to add a second stacker crane to the existing system,” says Klaus Seifermann, the head of their sales team. “But this reconfiguration would have interfered with our operations, which was out of the question.” Instead, a separate Unitower B tower storage system from KASTO was installed next to their existing in-line storage system to provide additional capacity. With a height of 8.5 m and a small footprint, this compact storage system consists of a double tower with space for almost 80 pallets, each of which can hold sheets measuring up to 3,000 mm x 1,500 mm. A stacker crane with a central crossbeam handles the load carriers so that it is not necessary to move the entire stock, only the pallet in question. This ensures fast access times with a high efficiency lifting gear that provides significant energy savings. The Unitower connects to the existing Uniline storage system for maximum flexibility using a bridge with a longitudinal carriage riding on a rail that links the two systems at the top. “We can move pallets automatically from one area of the storage facility to another without losing valuable space down below,” states van den Hurk.
An additional laser cutting machine is also connected to the Unitower system. Loading and unloading are performed by a fully automatic handling system from a third-party supplier. Using various grippers, it can handle whole sheets as well as cut parts and remnants. “This increases our productivity and gives us greater flexibility,” adds Verschuuren. A special advantage of this system is that it can easily be integrated into the metalworking machinery of other manufacturers. “We are not dependent on a single manufacturer like we would be with other systems,” explains Verschuuren. “We can use the machines that are most suitable for the given requirements.”
The tower storage system was installed in only a few weeks without interrupting operations or causing delays in deliveries. Both the new and the existing system are controlled by a KASTOlogic warehouse management system. The software is programmed to treat the two areas as a single connected storage system, making it easier to operate with increased stock transparency. The warehouse management system also connects with the company’s ERP system for consistent data flow and smooth order processing. The machines in the shop that run unattended are equipped with cameras and both the Uniline and Unitower systems can be monitored remotely. In an emergency, malfunctions are reported directly to employee smartphones so they can react swiftly. “The facility is very reliable and errors are uncommon. But, if necessary, KASTO technicians can access the facility online from Germany and rectify any problems,” explains van den Hurk.
KASTO, Inc., 3002 Venture Court, Export, PA 15632-8949, 724-325-5600, www.kasto.com.
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