Wrapped up in cotton wool

MHD sits down for a yarn with Australia’s largest wool handing company to find out more about the machinery that’s managing the movement of the nation’s wool and cotton industry.

From the infamous Australian Ugg boot to an alternative thermal packaging for food and pharmaceutical products, Australian wool is regarded as among the world’s best.

The nation is one of the world’s largest wool producers, producing around 25 per cent of greasy wool sold on the world market. The Australian Wool Production Forecasting Committee expects the 2020–21 shorn wool production would be 276 million kilograms greasy.

The natural fibre in wool is highly sought after for garments, due to wool’s unique odour resistant properties. However, before it’s turned into a woolly good, the thousands of kilograms of product require efficient supply chain management and storage solutions.

AWH is now Australia’s largest wool and independent cotton handler as well as being one of Australia’s leading general warehouse and specialist logistics providers. AWH is co-owned by the international stevedore and global logistics company DP World Australia and the World’s largest agri-business company Nutrien Ag Solutions.

In various incarnations, AWH has been at the core of the Australian Wool supply chain for over twenty years. Rod Mackenzie and Tony Crebbin have the collective experience of over fifty years in their respective cotton and wool industries with AWH.

Although Rod and Tony work on sites at opposite ends of the nation, they both say that machinery from specialist handling manufacturer Combilift has been as essential as the cotton and wool product itself.

Cotton footprint

Tony Crebbin, AWH Northern Eastern Operations Manager, says 170,000 bales of cotton have been received for export from its warehouse in Rocklea, Queensland this year. The warehouse gathers cotton from Northern New South Wales and Queensland, then sorts and stores it ready to be shipped overseas to be most commonly manufactured into apparel and clothing items.

“We’ve had some huge years with the cotton supply chain in my 35 years of being part of the business. Up to 300,000 bales have been through the site at Rocklea,” Tony says. He began on the floor of the warehouse and worked his way up the ranks to his current position of Region Operations Manager.

He highlights the implementation of a Combilift straddle carrier (Combi-SC3) at the Rocklea site as a milestone for the company. The Combilift-SC3 (Remote Control/SC3T/RC) has a capacity to handle 35,000kg to over 100,000kgs. “A huge advantage was installing a complete unit that operates without fault every day,” Tony says.

Just over a year ago, all containers that arrived at AWH’s Rocklea site came on a side loader. “We used to be tied down to operating around container arrival times,” Tony explains. Since installing the Combi-SC, he says the site now has ultimate flexibility. “A container can just come in and we can pick it up in one lift with the Combi-SC and place it where it needs to go immediately. That is a huge cost-saving measure as we were previously loading outside the warehouse. Just imagine a 90,000 sqm warehouse and the distance you’ll be running with a forklift!” he says.

The Combilift arrived from Ireland in several shipping containers requiring assembling on the Rocklea site. Tony says the installation of the Combi-SC happened on-site in just three weeks. “We worked with Combilift to have a specially designed straddle carrier for our shed as it is quite low due to our location that backs onto Brisbane Airport,” he says.

Once the height approval was confirmed, the construction began to take place. Tony says the first stage was lifting and assembling the frames and main body, followed by the running of the cabling, lifting chains, electrics, and lights. “All checks of electrical components and final cabling checks were complete within the installation period. The next stage was to move to operational testing through trials,” Tony says.

“Since it was built it’s been essential equipment for us. We are much happier than we’ve been before.” He notes one of the biggest differences to operation since installing the Combi-SC3 is the straightforward ease of the machinery. “The training has been hassle-free. Our drivers have appreciated the easy process unloading containers with Combi-SC and especially the air-con during Queensland’s sweltering heat,” Tony says.

Since installation, Combilift has also added a brace to the Combi-SC3 to further assist AWH Rocklea, who also handle heavy duty escalator parts as well as cotton bales to enhance versatility. “That means we’re not having to hire a crane but can move containers and parts around independently whenever it suits us, which is not only a cost-saving measure for us but our clients too.”

“We are now confident that our business has the reliable equipment to service our customers’ requirements as efficiently as possible,” Tony says. He predicts Australia will be looking at a stronger cotton season this year due to the rain in Queensland and credits the Combi-SC3 as a useful tool to aid business development and enhance Australia’s wool and manufacturing market.

Handling national wool clip

Rod Mackenzie, AWH Lara Site Manager, says the company’s Victorian site in Lara deals principally in wool as well as some dry bulk across its four sheds that stretch over 120,000 sqm.

Rod explains that there are two peak shearing seasons. One from mid-August to December known as spring shearing, which is followed by autumn shearing from late February to end of April. “Traditionally with bales of wool, an operation can only stack four high from the floor. So, we had a vision to install racking to go higher and make best possible use of our shed space,” he says.

AWH installed three Combilift Aisle Master articulated forklifts at the Lara site, just over five years ago. Rod labels the machinery installation as a game-changer for facilitating and managing the movement and sale of the national wool clip annually. “Our sheds have narrow alleyways and rely on height to stack more than 4 bales of wool on the floor. We have around 600,000 sqm of racking in place now that stand 11 meters tall at the peak of the shed. Now we can store roughly 24,000 bales of wool, whereas traditionally on the floor it could only hold around 19,000 bales,” he says.

Rod says storage capacity has never been more important, as due to current supply chain challenges, less wool is being exported to key international markets. The result is a requirement for more interim storage capacity, which the company has been able to achieve in its sheds thanks to the Aisle Masters’ ability to optimise space.

“We’ve increased volume by 5000 bales. Before, we had to lose a lot of wool by digging it out and replacing bales. But with the racking, wool movement is minimised in the warehouse without double work,” Rod says. The Lara site can comfortably hold wool until an auction takes place and when the buyer is ready to export, AWH utilise the gas operated Aisle Master articulated forklifts to help clients with their storage and movement requirements as efficiently as possible.

“Wool comes in at all different sizes and weights so having racking with a versatile machine ensures safe handling of bales whilst also maximising storage space,” Rod says. “The Aisle Masters themselves are comfortable for our drivers navigating narrow aisles and perform to a high standard thanks to their reliable operation and minimal maintenance levels that keep costs down.”

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