Bickford's Group, Australia

Bickford’s distributes its iconic products to thousands of customers ranging from small convenience stores to Australia’s largest retailers, and it also exports to 34 countries around the world.

The business has a reputation for innovation in manufacturing and logistics, with the majority of pallet handling at its 20,000 m2 distribution centre (DC) in Salisbury South carried out by a fleet of five Dematic Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs).

AGVs at Bickford’s

Bickford’s fleet of AGVs typically operate over two shifts, commencing operations at 3am, though they can also operate around the clock during peak periods.

They start by fulfilling all of the DC’s replenishment requests, before consolidating rows of finished goods, in preparation for despatch.

During the day when production is running, the AGVs’ primary function is automating the transfer of finished goods from Bickford’s manufacturing operation to the nearby DC, which is located 50m from production.

In the DC, the AGVs block-stack pallets of finished goods up to three high in preparation for despatch. They also pick pallets out of standard selective racking. The only manual task is the actual loading of pallets onto delivery trucks, which is done by forklifts.

Stock is located based on its velocity, with faster moving SKUs stored near the front of the DC, and slower moving SKUs to the rear. This minimises overall AGV travel time, with the average transfer from production to the DC taking around five minutes.

At around midday, the AGVs begin picking and consolidating all of Bickford’s orders that need to be despatched the following day, and they continue consolidating orders right through the afternoon and evening, long after everyone has gone home. They also consolidate different production batches so they are in LIFO or FIFO order depending on what is required.

Another task the AGVs handle is consolidation. This is important to optimise space efficiency in the DC and to ensure Bickford’s always has sufficient storage space for new pallets from production. 

AGVs reduce whole of supply chain costs

Bickford’s Warehouse Manager, Rhett Glanville, said the main reason for implementing AGVs was to reduce whole of supply chain costs.

“Our AGVs don’t make mistakes, are very reliable and have significantly transformed the efficiency of our manufacturing logistics operations,” said Mr Glanville.

“When an AGV transports and puts a pallet somewhere, it constantly updates our WMS so all materials handling is conducted in real time.”

“The great thing about the AGVs is that they communicate with each other,” added Mr Glanville.

“The control system for the AGVs is also very smart. If one AGV is closer to a task than another, they'll swap tasks. I can even remotely program them from home.”

Since Bickford’s introduced AGVs, it doesn't need to do stocktakes any more.

“We now have a rolling stocktake, which constantly updates our WMS system,” he said.

Reduced damage, improved reliability

Another benefit of AGVs at Bickford’s is that they have virtually eliminated stock damage due to manual handling. Product damage during forklift operations was costing the business around $30-40,000 every year. Since the introduction of AGVs, this had dropped to around $1-2,000 per annum.

“Like any vehicle they require servicing, but they are remarkably reliable,” added Mr Glanville.

“They don’t call in sick, they don’t take holidays, they don’t pick the wrong item or number of pallets, or put stock away in the wrong location, and they also continue to work after everyone has gone home.”

Rapid ROI

The savings Bickford’s AGVs deliver meant the return on investment (ROI) for its fleet of five AGVs was just two-and-a-half years.

“Of course, a manually-operated forklift can complete more tasks in the same time as an AGV, however, forklift drivers have lunch breaks, they can call in sick, and they can make mistakes. AGVs on the other hand can basically work around the clock, and they are incredibly accurate and reliable,” said Mr Glanville.

When fully charged an AGV will typically operate from around six to eight hours. When the charge in their battery is starting to get low, or whenever there is a break in the workflow and they are not required, the AGVs take advantage of opportunity charging. They simply drive on to a charging plate, of which there are several located throughout the site, and within 10 minutes they have enough power to continue operating for another hour.

AGV operation

A scanner mounted to the AGVs uses a combination X, Y and Z coordinates to constantly work out where they are and where they are going.

They continually update their position utilising hundreds of reflectors located throughout the warehouse, and their positioning at all times is as accurate as 10mm.

They're also very reliable, but Bickford’s makes sure it carries out regular preventive maintenance to keep them operating at maximum efficiency.

Improved OH&S

Workplace safety has also been significantly improved. Each AGV is equipped with an array of sensors that automatically detect any object in their path.

“If I was to walk in front of an AGV while it is traveling between locations it would detect my presence and automatically stop. When it detects the obstruction has gone, it will resume the task it was doing,” said Mr Glanville.

“I can send orders to them and they will just go along and do those tasks without any fuss. I can do other work, come back, and all the tasks are complete. I don't have to worry. I know that they'll get done,” he said.

The transition from forklifts to AGVs was very straightforward and took less than three months. Bickford’s forklift drivers were redeployed to other tasks.

“We’re also very happy with how reliable the AGVs have been,” added Mr Glanville.

“After all this time, I wouldn't know what to do without AGVs.”

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