Blue Bell Creameries Licks Its Storage Shortage

A new ASRS helps Blue Bell Creameries continue its long history as one of America’s favorite ice cream producers. Here’s the scoop.

Nothing hits the spot on a hot summer day like a bowl of ice cream, and no one knows this better than people living in the South.

That’s what drove a group of Texans to establish the Brenham Creamery Company 100 years ago and begin producing ice cream for delivery to neighbors by horse and wagon.

In 1930, the company changed its name to Blue Bell Creameries after the native Texas bluebell wildflower. Since then, Blue Bell has become an American success story, carrying more than 50 ice cream flavors, numerous frozen snack items, and sugar-free/low-fat lines of ice cream.

The company’s products are available throughout the South, totalling about 20 percent of the nation’s supermarkets. Even with limited availability, Blue Bell ranks as one of the top three best-selling ice cream brands in the country.

Blue Bell Creameries is celebrating its 100th anniversary throughout the year with a variety of activities. A traveling exhibit, a flavor-naming contest, special anniversary ice cream flavors, and a big birthday bash at the company’s Brenham, Texas, headquarters round out the list.

With such a popular product, Blue Bell has to keep its production and distribution facilities in top shape. So when its main distribution center in Sylacauga, Ala., needed to grow with the company, the search began for the right solution and technology.

The Cold Facts

The main Blue Bell DC covers the majority of a 15-acre campus. Some 200 employees work two shifts to move ice cream from the production line to storage, then out to customers and 17 smaller DCs.

Customers include supermarkets, convenience stores, and restaurants. Blue Bell provides direct-store delivery, so the company has control of the product all the way to the end customer. As you would expect with an ice cream DC, the majority of the storage space is kept extremely cold – at -20 degrees Fahrenheit. The DC aims to send orders out within two days of receipt.

The DC was operating with about 3,000 pallet spaces. Those spaces, however, were quickly filling up with Blue Bell’s growing volume.

“Because of the anticipated increase in efficiency, and our space constraints, we knew that we needed to build up to gain more storage space,” says Kevin Wood, Blue Bell’s general manager. “We already operated a crane system in our Brenham production facility, so we were familiar with potential options for increasing space.”

Wood and his team decided to focus on automated storage retrieval systems (ASRS), and explored various providers for the right solution. The combination of automation and experience in a freezer environment helped Blue Bell select Westfalia Technologies, York, Pa., as its partner.

The project was broken down into two phases. “The initial phase included a pallet conveying system, which was necessary to bridge the 400-foot distance between production and the new ASRS,” explains John Hinchey, vice president of sales, Westfalia.

The conveyors transport pallets from the production area to the ASRS in the freezer space.

In all, the conveyor system includes an automatic label applicator, pallet transport and accumulation conveyors, and a transfer car (T-car) that distributes pallets two at a time toward the ASRS or to an existing conventional freezer.

Going Up

After completing the conveyor installation, Westfalia built the ASRS. “The system is nine levels high and comprises more than 7,000 pallet storage locations in 14,000 square feet of freezer space,” says Hinchey.

The system is designed with two storage retrieval machines (S/RMs) operating in one aisle. Each S/RM operates in its designated working half with a safety zone mid-aisle to prevent collision.

This design provides the benefit of redundancy so that if one machine is down for maintenance the other can gain access to the balance of the aisle.

For this particular operation, each S/RM transports pallets two at a time, which provides a throughput capacity of 100 pallets per hour per S/RM.

The system is also designed to handle multiple pallet sizes. Blue Bell’s pallets, for instance, measure 36 by 40 inches, while the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) pallets that also come through the facility are 48 by 40 inches.

In addition, the system was designed to provide three points of support for pallets when products are in the rack storage. “That adds a degree of reliability for Blue Bell because it eliminates pallet deflection,” notes Hinchey.

The ASRS utilizes Westfalia’s Satellite load transportation vehicle, which is designed to store pallets eight or 10 deep in the racks for a total of 7,000 positions.

“This is a huge improvement for us,” says Wood. “During our busy summer season we don’t use all of those spaces, but in the winter the extra storage capacity will be welcome.”

Running the entire operation is Westfalia’s Savanna.NET warehouse management system, which controls, tracks, and records product movement from system entry to exit. Savanna.NET replaced Blue Bell’s legacy WMS, which operated in the mostly manual environment.

The new WMS is modular, consisting of a central “base” of logistics functions, which can be expanded and adapted to specific customer needs by adding modules such as order picking.

The new system was installed seamlessly because it was an addition to Blue Bell’s existing retrieval operation. It has changed the company’s productivity for the better, according to Wood.

“We used to bring product to the palletizer and shrink-wrapper, then place it on the conveyors,” he explains. “Then a forklift operator would pick up the product and place it in the racks.”

Now, once the products have gone through the pallet and shrink-wrap stations, they move to the new conveyor, which transfers them to the ASRS and stores them automatically. When it comes time to pick, the WMS calls for the product, and the ASRS delivers it to the conveyor.

“The system helped us reduce forklift traffic by 80 percent,” says Wood. “There is also less product damage and huge labor savings.”

In the future, Blue Bell will further enhance its new system with a wireless inventory solution for its packaging material inventories. In addition, the company will replace manual palletizing operations with a robotic palletizer.

Overall, Wood is happy with the new system. “This is an excellent solution,” he says. “We will use it to push company growth forward and increase sales.”

And that’s a delicious ending.

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