Looking for a storage solution? Think vertically

Solving the storage dilemma with improved space utilization.

When German automobile manufacturer BMW decided in 1992 to locate its first manufacturing facility outside Germany in Spartanburg, South Carolina, it set the stage for a large investment in the U.S. economy. Since then, the company has invested $1.9 billion in its Spartanburg plant, first in initial construction and then in upgrades and expansions. By June 2002, the plant was producing more than 9,500 vehicles each week.

One model,the X5 sports activity vehicle,spurred a recently completed plant expansion. The first BMW to be launched in the United States, the X5 is billed by BMW as the first true luxury sports activity vehicle (SAV), one that combines the powerful acceleration and exceptional handling of a BMW automobile with advanced traction technologies and all-wheel drive. Its manufacture in the Spartanburg facility also required a plant expansion from 1.2 million sq. ft. to 2.1 million sq. ft.

However, storeroom capacity was not significantly expanded with the addition. "Even with the dramatic increase in production capacity and manufacturing flexibility," says Tony Brannon, BMW's Coordinator of Central Operations Support, "the plant's existing 7,500-sq.-ft. storeroom housing spare parts for manufacturing equipment was not allotted more space."

Finding more space

BMW's solution to its more space dilemma was to move upward rather than outward. As a result, it specified five Remstar Shuttle vertical lift modules (VLMs). "Although drawer cabinets, a pallet stacker and shelving were already nearly full, the room's vertical cube was largely untouched," Brannon says.

Vertical storage and retrieval systems offer improved space utilization. Depending on usable building interior heights, 75 percent or more of a conventional storage system's occupied floor space can be recovered. "BMW had available space,but it wasn't floor space," says Ed Romaine of Remstar International, Inc. "We helped them make use of the space they already had." The five VLMs replaced a length of 6-ft.-high, 35-ft.-long shelving in a corner of the storeroom. Including the 42-in. aisle, they consume only 363 sq. ft. of floor space. BMW calculated that equivalent cabinets would have required 800 sq. ft. of floor space, or twice the area required for the VLMs.

Remstar's Shuttle VLM is a stand-alone, modular system of vertically arranged storage trays, a workstation-type extraction platform and computerized push-button controls for parts retrieval. It stores and retrieves a variety of component containers on specially designed trays and delivers them to an ergonomically positioned workstation. The Shuttle VLM has a fast vertical travel speed of 138 ft. per minute, and an extraction speed of 10.63 in. per second.

One key feature of the Remstar Shuttle VLM is its ability to improve storage efficiency, in addition to capacity. "The [VLM] automatically minimizes tray-to-tray vertical spacing within the stacks each time the tallest item on a tray is removed and the tray is returned to the stack," says Brannon. The auto-optimization feature was the single most important factor in their VLMs, he adds.

Quick retrieval response

VLM operation is easy and responsive to each facility's needs. When a storeroom associate needs a part, the correct tray is lowered automatically by an internal elevator to a waist-high extraction platform, where it is advanced out toward the associate for easy part removal or put-away. VLM tray-to-tray retrieval times range from 30 sec. to 32 sec., and load capacity per tray is 550 lbs. Load balancing is unnecessary because trays are chain-driven from both ends. It accommodates parts as tall as 29.5 in., with minimum tray-to-tray spacing of 4 in.

Items such as circuit breakers, push buttons, small hydraulic and pneumatic valves and cylinders, welding gun components and air wrenches are stored on the trays.

BMW stores larger parts free on the trays, while smaller parts are consolidated in plastic containers. Heavy items with moving parts often are laid on rubber matting to minimize bearing or O-ring deformation from building vibrations. "Before and after each tray extraction, a light curtain sweeps the tray, looking for parts extending beyond its edge and for parts taller than the last height detected and remembered by the VLM for that tray," says Brannon. "The latter information helpfully points out unclosed carton flaps, plastic bags sticking up and other storage irregularities. The curtain also determines the stacking density to be selected when the tray is returned to the stack."

While the addition allowed new production machines to be installed, it did not have to accommodate added storeroom space. Brannon says that not only were building costs and production floor space saved, but the automated and enclosed units protect spare parts from dust and dirt, and provide for easy retrieval and put-away.

Maintenance program improves customer service

When the number of building permits for new construction soared to record heights in the mid-1990s, Charlotte, N.C.-based National Gypsum Co. (NGC) saw the demand for its Gold Bond gypsum wallboard exceeding supply routinely.

In keeping with its vision statement, "to be the best producer of preferred products, quality and service, as determined by our customers," the company initiated plans both to maintain customer satisfaction and expand its existing plant capacity.

Key goals

To help it develop its plans, NGC contracted Alexandria, Va.-based HSB Reliability Technologies (HSBRT). It instructed HSBRT to take direction from NGC corporate management and to work with plant personnel to develop plant-specific plans. According to NGC corporate managers, the goal was "standardization and consistency of maintenance practices at the asset level, including fire and safety requirements." At the plant level, the goal became more pointed: Prevent emergency breakdowns of equipment required to operate 24/7.

Establishing a preventive maintenance program

Within a year, NGC and HSBRT implemented a customized preventive maintenance (PM) program, PM-30, at NGC's 40 North American sites. Operational in 60 to 90 days, the program didn't require hiring a system administrator, according to HSBRT.

To customize each plant's implementation process, a team of HSBRT engineers met with an equipment reliability team, which included management, production and maintenance personnel. Once a facility's needs and bottleneck areas were identified, HSBRT engineers physically inspected each piece of equipment to be included in the program. They also gathered nameplate data, utility requirements, motor information, engineering modifications, original equipment manufacturer's manuals, past PM practices and input from the maintenance staff.

Using this information, HSBRT engineers developed master maintenance schedules from a proprietary database of more than 350,000 profiles to produce a list of detailed PM tasks. Each task was assigned to a particular skill group and included estimated work time, safety instructions, and required parts and special tools.

They also performed a comprehensive workload balance to spread the work throughout the year evenly, and took into consideration the tasks that could be performed during production, holidays and planned outages.

With accurate equipment histories in place, HSBRT engineers performed reliability analyses to reduce emergency repairs. The reporting structure, along with HSBRT recommendations, has enabled the plants to focus on achieving record production levels while reducing maintenance costs.

Program yields tangible rewards

The results of the PM-30 program are in the numbers. During the past six years, NGC has increased material and labor productivity by 25 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, it reduced unplanned downtime by 45 percent, customer complaints by 56 percent and spoilage by 35 percent.

Was the PM-30 program solely responsible for delivering those numbers? No, says Joe Mihalko, southeast regional manager with HSBRT. However, he says, it was a contributing factor and a key building block for NGC to expand on.

"The PM-30 program is an effective tool when employees are empowered to work as a team and management is responsible for the verification of its utilization," says NGC's Jerry Carroll. "PM-30 program was a solution that could be implemented at all the plants in a very short period of time, allowing the employees to see the results of their efforts, keeping morale high."

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