Australia’s rail future on track

One thousand rail professionals from Australia and around the world gathered in Canberra in December to debate ‘Rails Role in Society’ for AusRail, the largest rail conference and exhibition in the southern hemisphere.

Hosted by the Australasian Railway Association(ARA), the two-day event included seventy technical and industry leading speakers who covered topics including high speed rail, the future of rail manufacturing in Australia, and rail engineering and rolling stock.

ARA CEO Bryan Nye said rail in its various forms plays a huge role in society.

“Here in Australia and around the world, all areas of rail, whether it be freight, passenger, light or high speed, is firmly on political and public agendas.

“Trains are no longer simply seen as a mode of transport to move goods and people but increasingly our industry is looked upon as one that can help solve the many challenges we face here in Australia and throughout the world.”

Talking to LMH, Nye said the freight haulage capacity of the network was huge.

“This year we have moved 950 million tonnes on the freight network,” he said, adding that the number is “tipped to increase in excess of a billion tonnes moved by rail” next year.

The increased use of freight rail has seen major projects develop throughout Australia, with the mining industry in particular is leading the charge, with multi-million dollar projects expanding the coal haulage capacity of major companies.

National Rail, now known as Aurizon, has announced plans for 10 new coal-train sidings as part of a $130 million train fuelling and maintenance facility at Hexam.

Aurizon said the project will lift the Hunter’s coal capacity to 180 million tonnes.

The proposal comes as federally owned Australian Rail Track Corporation plans to build five of its own sidings at Hexham, taking the total number of sidings to be built beside the main northern railway to 15.

The company expects to employ 30 people to service 12 trains a day by 2014-15, but says the number of trains will double by 2020 to 24 a day,

While also in the Hunter, Asciano’s new $110m Greta Train Support Facility opened in December.

Designed to support Pacific National’s NSW coal haulage operations and increase the efficiency of services in the Hunter Valley region, the new facility is set to provide significant capacity benefits to the broader Hunter Valley Coal Chain.

A range of functions will be performed onsite, including the refuelling of trains, routine train inspections, and wagon maintenance work.

In August last year, Asciano also opened its new $180 million train maintenance facility in Nebo, Queensland.

"Nebo is the first facility of its design in Australia and includes some of the most innovative design and maintenance techniques seen within the rail industry today, with capacity to support up to 25 coal trains, with eight bays for locomotives and two main tracks for wagon maintenance,” Geoff Featherstone, Pacific National's general manager operations QLD, said at the time.

However according to the ARA, despite increasing growth in the sector due in part to the mining boom, the transport industry is facing its own set of unique challenges.

In particular, Nye said government policies around the carbon tax and the ability to upgrade networks was essential in ensuring Australia’s national freight network remained internationally competitive.

The ARA say the carbon tax in particular will continue to have a perverse effect on rail transport.

It estimates that the tax will cost the industry in excess of $100 million in energy costs alone, and have taken issue with the exemption of heavy vehicles.

“Rail supports action on climate change. However, under this scheme, rail which is considerably less emission intensive will have to grapple with significant increases in its costs, while the more polluting road vehicles are exempt,” Nye said.

The ARA is calling for an end to the exemptions for road transport, or alternatively, want the same exemptions for rail.

The organisation estimates that if the $110 million carbon tax payed was allowed to be reinvested in the rail industry, by 2030 this would mean taking 42 500 trucks off the road.

“Where road and rail compete, we should be treated exactly the same,” Nye told Logistics and Materials Handling.

Nye said that the organisation would be pushing for an amendment to the tax, allowing for the equal treatment in payments made by trains and trucks and states it would allow the industry to become more cost-competitive.

“It means that freight by rail would be cheaper and that is what we are after, getting more freight onto the railway,” Nye explained.

But with increased haulage operations, Nye also highlighted that increased freight capacity was needed to ensure the demand was able to be met.

“Currently from Melbourne to Sydney only 5 percent of freight goes by rail,” he said. 

“I think everybody would like to see a lot more freight go by rail.”

“Part of the challenge is that everybody wants increased productivity and increased efficiency, I think the challenge is getting more freight on to rail between the capitals.

“The big challenge is to get trains through the congested city networks is a challenge.’

Pointing to the Southern Sydney Freight Line (SSFL), a dedicated 36km freight line between Birrong and Macarthur which allows passenger and freight services to operate independently, Nye said he hoped more projects like it would be invested in the government.

Separating passenger and freight rail lines will mean a reduction in freight transit times and increase freight capacity to encourage more of a shift from trucks to rail. 

“Ultimately I want to see the freight network totally segregated from the passenger network.

“If we don’t have that goal we are going to have areal challenge on our hands”

Also underway in NSW: The Northern Sydney Freight Corridor (NSFC) is a joint venture between state and federal governments to improve the capacity and reliability of freight trains between Strathfield and Newcastle.

According to Transport NSW the program will include “grade separation, track amplification, and passing loops to provide sufficient additional network capacity to meet long-term freight and passenger business requirements.”

Nye said that the construction of rail specifically for freight was the key to ensuring the network increased its reliability, which has been an issue for freight companies in terms of transporting cargo where it needs to be on definite timelines.

Upgrades to the rail network requires major capital investment by governments, and will help improve the issue, however it is also up to companies to prove they are a more efficient transport method.

“The thing we know we have to improve there is ensure we improve reliability,” Nye explained.

“One of the challenges is that as you repair and upgrade track, the train has to slowdown, so as you are doing the repairs it effects the efficiency, but we are coming to the end of that so the challenge now is to ensure our reliability.”

However, despite the challenges facing the sector, Nye said the improvements and gains made the industry in recent years were positive.

“Rail is an exciting industry be involved in.

“Employment has gone up dramatically every year for the last five years and the amount of freight we are moving is going up.”

Nye said the industry was evolving to meet its challenges and that its role in the hauling of cargo would be even more profound in the future.

“It is an industry that is on the way up,” he said.

Image: ABC, Railwaytechnology.com,

Fighting counterfeit labels

Counterfeit products are becoming an increasing problem for manufacturers who make high-end or specialised equipment and can cost companies millions of dollars in lost revenue. Exporters along the logistics chain also suffer as they have to check the goods for quality assurance.

Ensuring products that are exported overseas maintain their integrity by making it harder for them to be counterfeited is becoming a focus for many manufacturers.

Codan, an Adelaide-based electronics company that develops, manufactures and markets Minelab handheld metal detectors with sales in over 60 countries worldwide, recently discovered that counterfeit Minelab GPX Series gold detectors, originating from China, had made their way into the African market.

Realising the huge impact the fake products could have on their business, Codan turned to Fujifilm’s unique ForgeGuard anti-counterfeiting labels so that throughout the supply chain, originals could be distinguished from the counterfeits, and logistics companies can ensure the integrity of their supply chain.

Codan’s Peter Charlesworth explained that a solution was required which would enable customers to realise they were dealing with a lesser product.

“Many of the Chinese counterfeit products look cosmetically identical to genuine Minelab products, to the extent that dealers and customer cannot visually tell the difference,” he said.

“However, these copies do not perform anywhere near as well as genuine Minelab metal detectors.”

“While Codan has registered trademarks in place for Minelab and GPX, this alone does not stop counterfeit products entering the market.

Therefore other practical solutions were also required to reassure dealers and customers that they were buying genuine Minelab products, with high performance and the ongoing service and warranty back up that Minelab provides. That’s where Fujifilm and ForgeGuard came in.”

ForgeGuard true colour hidden image labels provided a solution for Codan which could be applied quickly and effectively to their products.

The labels work by making it harder for a counterfeiter who is trying to copy and export the true colour hidden image, which identify the products as genuine Minelab.

Charlesworth said that the technology enabled the company to customise the final labels so that we could add our own unique identifiers,” giving Codan an added protective advantage for exporting.

“We also found that applying a ForgeGuard label on the outside of some packaging gave us additional reassurance that genuine products were being moved through our distribution channels without time consuming and disruptive opening of boxes and manual inspection,” he explained.

“We restricted the distribution of ForgeGuard viewers to only our authorised Minelab dealers and added an additional level of verification by cross matching the hidden image against the product’s serial number. This verification process operates through a password protected webpage that only authorised Minelab dealers can access.”

Minelab metal detectors are used outdoors in harsh environments and Charlesworth states that even when subjected to dirt, dust and water, the ForgeGuard labels are strong enough to reach the final point of sale anywhere in the world.

“We are impressed with the stability of the hidden image all through our supply channels, even to some very remote regions and it would appear that the labels far exceed our needs,” he said.

Charlesworth said the technology gives his company greater protection against counterfeiters, and ensures the quality of Codan products are no longer being compromised.

“We’ve worked really hard to achieve our technical superiority and the ForgeGuard labels give our customers the reassurance that they’ve bought a genuine Minelab product.“

“This gives us a significant competitive advantage against the counterfeiters.”

New bulk bag export pallets to hit market

Bulk Handling Australia Group have released its new slim -line plastic export pallet for bulk bags onto the Australian and New Zealand markets.

BHA have been developing the BHA Bag Pallet for over two years and said the innovation provides a low-cost alternative to wooden or traditional plastic pallets.

Injection moulded from High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) it features a four way entry design, is stackable to save space and fully recyclable. And weighing in at just 4.7 kg, the new patented design ticks all the boxes from an OH&S perspective.

The BHA Bag Pallet has also been laboratory and field tested to determine the design weight load performance for different bulk bag base dimensions and through extensive fill and logistics trials amongst bulk bag exporting companies.

BHA managing director Ian Shaw says the BHA Bag Pallet will provide innovation in the bulk bag export market for the food, agriculture, mining and chemical and other export industries.

“The slim line design allows for a lower profile, which provides the opportunity to design greater efficiency in the total container payload by reviewing the existing bulk bag dimensions”, he said.

“The ‘stack ability’ of the product offers huge space savings in the storage of pallets compared to standard wooden or plastic pallets, with a 10 stack only measuring 280 mm  in height.”

With more than 30 companies trialling the new pallet over the last 18 months, Shaw said the response from customers had been good.

“Customer feedback has been very positive with regards to the recyclable nature of the material, the fact that it is light weight and stackable, and because it can be reused in a closed loop system,” he said.

“The new pallet is a very unique design and while it may not be suitable in all instances due to the specific fill systems or handling processes of individual customers, in the majority of instances the BHA Bag Pallet has been trialled successfully across a number of industry segments.”

Shaw said the pallet was an important design development for BHA.

“The new pallet complements our existing product range and further strengthens our leadership position in the supply of Bulk Bags in Australia and New Zealand,” he said.

“The extensive trial work we have completed both in the Lab and with our customers over the past 18 months has provided the feedback to justify the significant investment in the injection mould required to manufacture the product.

With BHA in discussions with a number of companies regarding distribution rights in various countries around the world, it seems their innovation is turning heads in the materials handling space.

“We believe the product has enormous potential in all Bulk Bag export markets around the world,” Shaw explained.

“BHA prides itself on innovation, quality and service excellence and we believe this new innovation reinforces our continuing development of unique customer solutions.”

CHEP: the company that moves what you make

Imagine there's no pallets…

“When we induct new employees into CHEP, one of the first things we try to get them to do to just understand how seriously we take our business, is to actually try and imagine a business without CHEP and how anything would move,” said Phillip Austin, CHEP’s Australian & New Zealand President.

“How Woolworths would run its warehouses? How Linfox would run its trucks? How would an importer would actually be able to take goods from China and get them to the point of consumption?”

Once you start to think about pallets, you realise they’re everywhere. But if you make anything in large quantities, you already know this.

According to its website, CHEP manages 237 million pallets, 600,000 bulk containers and 34.9 million reusable plastic containers.

The rise of the pallet, according to a US Department of Agriculture paper (cited in “Pallets: The Single Most Important Object in The Global Economy” by Tom Vanderbilt at www.slate.com) was driven by two things: World War Two and the invention of the gas-powered forklift.

CHEP itself – now with a global network in 53 countries and over 75 sites in Australia alone – goes back to the Second World War.

When the US military left Australia after its Pacific campaign, it left behind a number of cranes, forklifts and around 60,000 pallets. These resources were handed over to the Australian government, who retained them as the Commonwealth Handling Equipment Pool. It was privatised and sold to Bramble’s, who still own it, in 1958.

“As we came through the 60s and into the 70s, not only that expansion internationally, but our business was originally a single-point hire,” explained Austin on the subject of CHEP’s growth.

“So if you needed a pallet you would hire it from CHEP. And that was the simplicity of the model. When you were finished you would give them back. The growth that really happened in the 60s and early 70s as the supply chain started to emerge, the pallets started to move with the goods."

 Designed around the pallet

CHEP’s history and success mean a number of things. First of all, what the company does is so tied to logistics and materials handling in this country that warehouses and the vehicles that move goods to and from them are created with the dimensions of CHEP’s iconic blue pallet in mind.“When you come to some of the uniqueness of our business – again, we get excited about this, but – every trailer in Australia is designed to be two CHEP pallets wide,” Austin enthused.

“Every warehouse rack in Australia is built to be exactly one CHEP pallet wide. And so, the infrastructure in which the entirety of Australia’s supply chain has been built is actually built around the CHEP pallet.”

The size of the pallets isn’t the international standard, though. The 1165 by 1165 mm tray is sized differently to the other five ISO-sanctioned pallet dimensions used throughout the world.

“The CHEP Australia pallet came first,” pointed out Austin. “For whatever comfort that’s worth.”

CHEP also, of course, caters to the other and other pallet dimensions for Australian exporters and importers.

The company stresses, though, that it is more than a company that just makes pallets.

“We’re not a pallet business, we’re a pooling services provider,” said Austin.

“CHEP Australia is actually a portfolio of businesses. It has a range of products and serves a range of sectors, from manufacturing, chemical industrial, FMCG, automotive and the fresh produce sector.”

The range of containers and pallets CHEP provides includes wooden, plastic, display, import, export, aviation and automotive crates. Its history is bound up in pallets, but it is looking to expand its pooled bulk container and plastic containers and crates.

 Measuring retail conditions

The humble blue pallet, however, has been around long enough and is so ubiquitous that CHEP has been able to create an index of retail economic activity based on the movements of these.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council CHEP Retail Index has been published every quarter since May last year. The leading index is based on tracked pallet movements from over 20,000 CHEP accounts, showing “significant correlation with the [Australian Bureau of Statistics] retail trade figure three months ahead” according to the AFGC.

Over 10 million data points are scrutinised by Deloitte Analytics, whose algorithm comes up with an expression of how things will look in the retail world three months in the future.

“And we’re able to get out, before the ABS, a very, very accurate overview of what the retail trade figures will be. It has predictive capacity a quarter ahead," said Austin (pictured below).

“If the packaging sector picks up, they’ll only be doing so because the manufacturing sector’s placed orders. The manufacturing sector will have placed orders because it’s taking a view or it’s got ultimate orders for retail sales.

“We’re getting very early signals of upswings or downturns in activity just through the physical movement of our assets.”

 Being sustainable

The pooling company is also proud of its sustainability efforts. Pooling, by its definition, does away with one-way container use by customer.

“And we’re committed to sustainability even within a business model that’s fundamentally sustainable, all of that plastic at the end is captured, re-ground, put back into new products,” said Austin of the plastic crate side of the business.

The Dandenong South service centre (its Victorian headquarters) that Manufacturers’ Monthly visits is one of many sites where pallets – manufactured from hardwood that is only just above a pulping standard – as well as containers and reusable plastic crates are washed, repaired and made fit to for use again.

The repair process itself, inherently a sustainable activity, is also impressive in terms of its automation levels.

“It’s an automated digital inspection where we have a booth there, and in there we’re using state of the art technology in terms of lasers and cameras,” said Darren Johnstone, the manager of the service centre, of the pallet repair ops.

“It scans the pallet – it’ll tell us what’s wrong with it. It will then define what needs to be repaired on that pallet. We’ve gone away from two people looking at a pallet, flipping it manually, looking at it saying ‘I need to this, I need to do that.’

“After the automated digital inspection, that then says ‘right, what’s wrong with this pallet?’ And we call it a recipe, it’s a repair recipe. And that recipe tracks with that pallet, so as the pallet moves through the plant, that recipe jumps around with it from sensor to sensor, and when it gets to the repair table, we’re just looking on what we call Smart Repair now, we’re a screen says ‘do this, do this, do this.’”

The Dandenong South centre alone handles and conditions around 4.7 million pallets each year, according to Johnstone.

 A vast network

As another example of the company’s scale, as well as its coordination, CHEP’s Supply Chain Australia director David Hansen gives the example of the Brisbane floods of 2011.

“We actually lost 75 per cent of our capacity in the state of Queensland, and nationally we lost over 15 per cent of our capacity, with two service centres out of action,” remembered Hansen.

“Through having great people and a lot of focus and drive, we actually came out of this without a single known customer service failure in Brisbane… While the places were getting cleaned up, while we were re-installing machinery, making good premises etc, the broader network kicked in.”

Austin also lauded the network’s efforts. “Part of that was actually getting back to production of bottled water and back to production of foodstuffs to feed north Queensland, which had just had a cyclone as well as Brisbane itself,” he said.

To return to the first point, if the CHEP doesn’t move, neither do a lot of other things. “If a major beverage company can’t get pallets today its production line stops tomorrow,” offered Austin.

“And if its production line stops tomorrow, then a major retailer doesn’t have one of its biggest-selling items two days later.

“That’s how I try to explain to it my daughter who’s in third grade. When we go to the supermarket and everything’s there, that’s because CHEP works.”

Browsing through supply chain software

Choosing the right supply chain management software is the key to constructing a flexible supply web. 

The supply chain has been evolving quickly over the last decade spurred by wider globalisation and fierce competition. However, high costs of transportation have been forcing many Australian businesses to pass these costs onto consumers, making it increasingly difficult for businesses to compete within the global market.

Many businesses across every conceivable market sector have been scrutinising the supply chain for ways of reducing costs through improved efficiency, while software vendors promise that their enterprise application will provide the desperately sought competitive edge.

In the 2012 Gartner Supply Chain Top 25 for Asia Pacific, the only Australian company which made the list, was retail giant Woolworths. According to Gartner research director Vikas Sarandghar "while demand in Asia Pacific is growing, inflation, rising costs and a tightening labour market pose challenges for companies in the region."

Current scenario

Today, the chain is more like a carefully constructed web with spokes and bars of suppliers, sub-contractor, customers, manufacturers and outsourcers in desperate need of cohesive processes and information to deliver profitability. 

Although software can help, businesses need to align their strategic direction to a more service orientated architecture to match the way the industrial world has evolved. The days when one company sourced materials, built it and sold it all through direct control have long past.  The supply chain, through its business processes and software architectures, must accept this economic reality to provide optimum fit.

Choosing right

Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) is still seen by many as just a new form of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), which for the last three decades has allowed disparate computer systems to exchange documents such as purchase orders, receipts and bills. Developed in an era of mainframes and bespoke systems, EDI is notoriously complex to implement and lacks the rigid standards that often limit customer and supplier interaction.

Where EDI simply allowed data exchange, SOA is instead a true collection of self-contained services that communicate with each other and do not depend on the context or state of the other service. 

An example could be a manufacturer who uses a Web service to gather the stock levels of its independent sales agents or an accounting package using the Web service of a governmental revenue agency. The service can be a full blown application such as stock control or shipping system allowing a company to outsource the non-core parts of the business to a third party but still maintain control and visibility of the information systems that are essential for smooth operation of the business.

A SOA service can pass the relevant XML schema so that all systems are able to interact based on the access level that each organisation requires or is assigned by the service owner.

An organisation must choose the supply chain management software depending on whether or not is their business prepared to adopt business processes that meet the service-oriented market that the world is moving towards. Businesses that want to succeed need to evaluate whether they can break the rigid chain and instead construct a flexible supply web that the market is demanding. 

Craig Charlton is the senior vice president and general manager for Epicor Software.

Turning product handling problems into profits

Product handling is a real challenge for companies. However a good conveyor system can turn the tide on poor profits.

Things move quickly in today's world. Whether companies are shipping directly to consumers, who want next day delivery of their purchases, or to business customers, who demand small regular deliveries on shorter lead times; delivering faster while keeping your handling costs down is becoming a real challenge for industry.

The key is choosing the right equipment to help you handle goods more cost effectively. 

Regardless of the type of business, companies will be moving products throughout the facility – between processes, from one end to the other, and ready to supply your customers. This transportation adds cost to the company's products, whether they are being moved at a moderate volume over a short distance or moving many units per hour across the entire length of the warehouse.

With tight OH&S requirements and increasing labour costs, manually handling of products can be very expensive. 
Motorised trolleys and automated guided vehicles (AGVs) can carry heavier loads much further than people, which can increase efficiency over traditional manual handling. 

For larger goods, forklift trucks and pallet movers are excellent universal handling machines that can also load and unload vehicles, and lift pallets up high for storage.

However the biggest savings and efficiency gains are made using conveyors. Conveyors are great for straight-forward transportation over short, medium or long distances. And unlike people, they don't run out of energy after carrying just a few cartons.

Transportation conveyors can flow throughout the facility, eliminating rehandling before and after each process, and can even be loaded and unloaded automatically; reducing the amount of manual handling needed and the cost of handling each carton.

According to Colby Conveyors, more flow, more manoeuvrability and more management control are what companies should be looking for when it comes to choosing a conveyor solution.

Heavy haulage in the Pilbara

As Western Australia's mines expand, they're demanding more from haulage companies and local infrastructure, writes Andrew Duffy. 

Watching heavy machinery in action on a mine site can be a rather transfixing experience. 

Few industries can match the sheer scale of the mining sector and the size of the equipment it demands. And as production rates grow higher and higher, equipment grows larger and larger. 

While many people are impressed by the scale of equipment, few spare a thought for how it made it there in the first place. 

Whether its machinery, equipment or buildings, most of the stuff on site needs to slowly and carefully find its way there. 

And a lot of this new movement, like everything else in the industry, is starting to centre around the Pilbara region. 
Some of the expansions by iron ore companies in this region are immense, and starting to put heavy demands on local infrastructure and businesses to meet their needs. 

A number of traffic control companies specialising in moving heavy equipment are now capitalising on this increase. 

A1 Labour Management, which specialises in traffic control and moving equipment for mining companies, has been one business to see a sharp rise in demand from Pilbara miners.

Wayne O'Neil from A1 Labour Management told Logistics & Materials Handling some of the Pilbara's biggest players, including BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals Group, had been driving the rise in mining's heavy haulage. 
O'Neil said developments further south had also kept A1 busy. 

"With all the different expansion projects happening at the moment, from now until the end of the year we're going to be very busy with it," he said. 

"There's definitely a couple of years worth of work happening out here." 

Recently, A1 has been managing the movement of several large loads for FMG. 

"We did a lot of stuff for them with Cloudbreak and Chirstmas Creek," O'Neil explained. 

"But we've worked with a lot of different companies. We've done stuff for BHP Billiton as well as Citic Pacific. 

"In the past, we've moved equipment for the Yandi and Area C mines, and work for Jimblebar is about to start next month." 

O'Neil said demand would also rise as Hancock Prospecting's massive Roy Hill project, lead by Gina Rinehart, started construction. 

With most of this work the starting point for the equipment is Port Hedland. O'Neil said after being manufactured in China, Thailand, and other parts of Asia and the world, the equipment was shipped to the Pilbara port. 

But because of the size, moving it through the Pilbara's long narrow roads presents some challenges. 

O'Neil said sometimes the gear reached dimensions around 15 metres high and 15 metres wide, and prior to the move crews would need to clear the road to make sure the equipment would fit. And because of the safety liability, the equipment is only moved at night. 

"It's a safety issue, plus the volume of traffic is quite considerable during the day where as night it's not," O'Neil explained. 

"We mainly go down the highway at night, and it usually takes two nights to complete the delivery," he added.

Getting the right flexibility in conveyors

Being able to change production processes to deliver products faster, and at a cheaper and consistently high standard, not only for local customers, but also for growing export markets is the ultimate aim for manufacturers and companies operating within Australia's food and beverage industries.

The key to achieving this flexibility is production equipment, in particular well-designed conveyor systems which allow smooth processing and prevent bottlenecking. Customised or 'turn-key' solutions are becoming increasingly popular, and are often integrated into a plant's automation or robotics system to allow for greater control. 

Flexibility in demand 

Anthony Gustafson, Australis Engineering engineering manager, says flexibility of design, and development time and cost are factors companies should consider when choosing a conveyor system.

"Australia's small market means most production lines run multiple products so machinery has to cater for multiple sizes, shapes, speeds and be able to handle these differences with the shortest changeover time possible," Gustafson said. 

The Sydney-based Australis Engineering provides a range of conveyor systems for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) production, including slat chain, modular belt, roller and pallet conveyors, and also bucket elevators. 

One manufacturer that utilises a number of flexible conveyor systems in its production line of canned fruits, fruit juices and cordials is Golden Circle. 

The company's Northgate, Queensland cannery produces over 180,000 tonnes per year of product to cater for consumer demands. 

Craig Kent, Golden Circle Northgate project engineer, agrees that conveyor flexibility is the key to delivery. "Modular conveyor systems must have short lead times, and spare parts must be easily sourced and readily available," he said.

Kent's facility relies on a combination of slat chain conveyors with Rexnord-branded stainless steel chains, modular belt conveyors with Intralox-branded chains, belt conveyors with rubber belting, and low back pressure carton roller conveyors. "These were all manufactured by site contractors to site specification for cleaning and the surrounding environment," he said. 

Conveyors for food and beverage

Though conveyor systems for manufacturing facilities come in all shapes and sizes, those engineered for the food and beverage sector must be made of hygienic materials allow for easy cleaning, and prevent cross-contamination between products and operators. 

Robert Marguccio, Heat and Control business manager, packaging and inspection systems Australia, says it is essential in the food business that processing equipment is hygienic. 

"High levels of hygiene, easy-to-clean with a quick cleaning turn-around, and reduction in product breakage are important to food manufacturers," he said.

Marguccio recommends looking at sanitation, operator safety, cross-contamination, sustainability and product quality control when purchasing a new conveyor or upgrading an existing system. System layout, feed modulation and methods to divert product are also important.

Golden Circle's Kent agrees. "Conveyors must be cleanable to maintain a hygienic standard in the factory," he said. 

"Where possible inner surfaces should be visible and cleanable. Some products even require the use of food grade cleaning agents that run continuously on the conveyor during production.

"Safety is always important. Conveyor systems must be easily accessible and maintained. Construction methods must not leave sharp edges or produce nip points with moving parts."

Meeting Standards

There are a number of Australian standards food manufacturers must adhere to in order to sell their products both locally and overseas, including standards relating to production equipment.

Equipment that can be cleaned easily and quickly, and offers safety features for the operator can help companies avoid potentially-severe health hazards; not only for the purpose of passing export quality control checks, but also to meet local food safety standards, like those governed by FSANZ, and machine safety standards like those from the Safety Institute of Australia (SIA). 

"Easy cleaning is always on the top of the agenda when we speak with our food production clients. It is very important especially where AQIS requirements are involved," said Gustafson. 

"Equipment is normally in Stainless Steel and particular attention is paid during the design phase to ensure cleaning can be easily performed."

Navigating through supply chain chaos

AS THE world's financial markets continue to provide sleepless nights for businesses, with every sign of growth seeming to be undermined by news of a softening jobs market and weaker demand, many logistics operators and warehouse managers are scratching their heads about how to best manage their operations for the future. 

Throughout the economic downturn, logistics companies looked to streamline their distribution centre operations and cut back on investing in equipment and infrastructure. 

However, now many are realising that to actually improve their processes and efficiencies to encourage business growth, they need to rebalance operations metrics from one traditionally focused on tight inventory and cost controls, back towards customer satisfaction. 

Rebalancing the warehouse

The trend towards a "rebalancing" of key operations metrics is expected to become more prevalent across many industrial, manufacturing and retail supply chains. As many businesses realise it is no longer enough to just operate in survival mode, and commit to more consistent and accurate demand forecasting, they will be more confident to pursue higher levels of customer service. 

But having the inventory and labour available to capture more revenue and market share in spite of the wider economic uncertainty will take more than confidence in demand planning. Being poised to grab their competitive share as the economy improves; many companies will have to re-double their focus on creating the truly agile distribution centre.  

Keeping afloat 

When the global economy began to slow down, almost all companies – large and small – were thrown into some form of planning chaos. The primary impact was adjusting to the radical drop in general demand. 

The loss of visibility through the supply chain impacted most all of the participants. And while the downturn affected some more than others, a majority of companies lost the forecasting capabilities they were accustomed to. Nothing looked similar to past practices. Consequently inventory positions were reduced as fast as possible and orders dried up. The ripple effect hit every aspect of operations including knowing when products would be ordered to ship and having the right mix of labour to fill orders and maintain an effective operation.  

Unfortunately, the companies that fared the worst were those that had not taken advantage of past success by making continued investments in solutions to make them more agile, flexible and capable on the floor of the distribution centre. They simply didn't have systems in place to help them adjust to the impact of the downturn or manage their way out of the situation. Stuck with poor planning tools, less than flexible mobile computing equipment and a workforce that was not fully cross-trained in multiple disciplines; these companies had a lot working against them.  

Those companies that fared the best had previously invested in the kinds of business process improvements and technology solutions necessary to negotiate the perils of the recession. From improved WMS planning and labour management tools, to having flexible tools on the floor with multi-modal equipment that can do everything from voice picking, to near/far range scanning in put-away and inventory applications, to signature capture at the receiving doc, many companies were able to react quickly, manage their labour costs, and retain their best associates.

Especially in areas where labour became the critical cost and capability for creating efficiency and performance, those companies that had seen the future and made the investments found themselves on top of the competition and ready to thrive. And, while they may not have had the optimal inventory availability as before, they were still able to tell their customers what they could expect and when, with timeliness and accuracy, therefore positively managing their customer service in a proactive way. These are the companies that will have the tools and leadership in place to take full advantage of the upturn in the economy and win more revenues and market share.  

The new normal

It is fair to say the jury is still out as to whether the entire manufacturing and retail supply chain will see a return to the pre-recession days, or whether conditions are set to soften again, or whether we will crawl back toward something that may be called the 'new normal'. But for those who made investments that saw them through the difficult days, there are a few things these leaders can do to take advantage of their current position and protect against future downturns. 

Firstly, always be looking out for new solutions to old or nagging issues, large or small. The term 'death by a thousand cuts' can define many small problems, each one bleeding an operation of precious resource. By themselves they don't reach the level of severity that would cause the problem to jump off the metrics report and demand a solution. But taken together, particularly if they are linked and impacting a major financial KPI, they must be addressed.  

Secondly, remember the people on the floor are a very expensive part of virtually every operation and at the same time are a key to unlocking optimal efficiency and productivity. Look to upgrade aging equipment to the latest form factors and system interfaces, especially for companies that are pushing the historical upper limit of their KPI's.

Even a small improvement in user ergonomics, in the motion tolerance of an imager for fast paced scanning operations, or an improvement in accuracy and safety from a voice to WMS interface can create an advantage. For most best-in-class operations, there is typically no silver bullet. Maybe it's planning ahead for new application upgrades, or examining existing data for streamlining best practices. Maybe it's calculating the ROI of replacing current equipment with a new purchasing or services model. 

Regardless, viewing the distribution centre as a highly interdependent system where all the workflows must serve the other, even with the slightest improvement in one process, can have a strong ripple effect. And the added satisfaction for the associates on the floor, from management's investment in their personal success, often yields unexpected and real bottom line benefits. 

It is these combined benefits that will deliver the competitive edge required to regain the optimal operational balance and tilt the table back toward superior customer satisfaction metrics to keep and win new business. But the most important thing for warehouse operators to do today is not to imagine what things will be like at some point in the future, but to ask and decide "what can we do now?" and get on with it.  

Cameron Wilson is the southern regional manager of Australia for Intermec.

Service-intensive supply chains: it’s all about the experience

CUSTOMER satisfaction plays a huge role in the success of service-intensive supply chains, particularly those that have a high level of involvement with their field service fleets. 

Poor customer experience due to late or missed service appointments, or multiple call-backs before the problem was fixed or the service was delivered, not only creates a high operational price tag for fleet and field operations management, but also impacts on that company's reputation. 

A 2012 Global Customer Service Barometer study by American Express in the US, released earlier this year, found that 55% of respondents, who expressed intention to go through with a business transaction, said that in the end they decided not to go through with it based on poor service experience in the past. The same report showed that 75% of customers spent more time with a brand or product because of a history of positive customer service experiences. 

The correlation between positive experience and returning business has proven to be rewarding for both the customer and the business. Data from a 2012 Aberdeen report, Customer Experience Management, Using the Power of Analytics to Optimise Customer Delight, also reinforces this trend. The report findings showed that higher customer satisfaction boosted retention and loyalty among the customers, bringing increased profitability for the servicing organisations. In fact, the research demonstrated that field service businesses providing best-in-class customer service are the most profitable. 

Be flexible, but realistic 

People often have no choice but to take time off work to facilitate appointments from service providers. This means existing and potential customers are sacrificing time, productivity and wages to ensure these appointments take place. Consequently, it makes sense for businesses to offer greater flexibility and reliability when arranging such visits as part of a premium post-sales support and customer service experience. If this is not an option, the reasonable thing to do would be to update your customers accordingly at the earliest convenience, rather than set unrealistic or high expectations that cannot be met. It's just as important to ensure that as a business, you are offering realistic expectations that can be met in a timely manner. Offering hour-long delivery windows is also becoming common practice among businesses, with pre- and after-hour visits and support heralded as a bonus, or even a deal breaker for potential customers when considering a purchase. 

Making the most of your data

Data analytics is a powerful tool for any large-scale organisations. Supply chain managers can best utilise data gathered over time to identify the ill-timed hours of the day and the types of jobs that are often missed to better manage the forecasting and planning involved for fleet staff. Understanding and using this data will help businesses address these issues, resulting in higher customer satisfaction and staff productivity, increased likelihood in meeting the set expectations and less chances cost your fleet time, money and reputation. 

Real-time technology

Many businesses have implemented a sophisticated technology solution that will alert managers if an appointment is expected to begin late or if it needs to be cancelled and rescheduled altogether. By staying up-to-date with the job status and the location of field service workers, the system can anticipate any roadblocks and tackle the issues either by reassigning the job to a more suitable mobile worker or at worst, updating the customer in a timely manner as this has been shown, anecdotally, to help ease any customer aggravation.

However, in the real world there are huge numbers of variables to factor in, therefore real-time monitoring plays a crucial role in ensuring that the necessary interventions can take place for a seamless customer service experience, regardless of whatever the changes in the situation occur.

Implementing the right solution can tackle these issues as it monitors the fleet staff's behaviour and uses the data gathered to help improve dispatch speed, increase communication to mobile devices to update work status and assign tasks to workers without having to call all staff back to the office – all of which help the employee arrive at the customer site and resolve the service issue on time.

With real-time updates, fleet management solutions improve overall customer satisfaction with faster and more accurate responses as well as provide better communication with customers and field service staff about service call timing. 

Running supply chains or field service businesses can be daunting and complex. But by implementing the appropriate technology and processes can certainly help ensure a seamless experience for the end-customer. This approach will improve first-call fix rates, the workforce's productivity and increase the company's profitability – but most importantly it will make sure that your customers won't feel let down.

Tom Scahill is Trimble Navigation ANZ business area director for field service management, transport and logistics.

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