material handling
By Gretchen Salois, senior editor
Aisle view of the stacker crane for the Fehr honeycomb system
Aisle view of the stacker crane for the Fehr honeycomb system.
Future Proof
A collaborative approach allows fabricator to adjust its inventory strategy

n March, the Denver area was devastated by a record-breaking snowstorm that razed structures, forced businesses and schools to close, and left thousands of residents without electricity. A portion of Triple-S Steel Holdings Inc.’s Colorado facility was no exception. About 40,000 sq. ft. of its 234,000-sq.-ft. facility collapsed.

Among the surviving infrastructure—its Fehr storage system. The system withstood the wrath of Mother Nature while surrounded by piles of scrap and debris. “Once we got the power back on, we didn’t miss a beat moving inventory using the Fehr storage system,” says Gary Stein, Triple-S Steel CEO. “Since then, we’ve finished demolishing scrap on the ground and are engineering a replacement bay on the same footprint.”

With expansion efforts in motion, Fehr’s open-ended software architecture allows Triple-S to plan its evolving inventory structure. Using Fehr Warehouse Solutions, Triple-S can keep track of and store its extended product inventory, which reaches up to 40 ft. long. “The software gives us flexibility, but we thought it was unique that we could source the materials for the physical racking system here in the U.S.,” says Stein. “We buy American where we can, and while no other company we found makes a machine like this in the U.S., we were able to purchase rack components locally.”

Honeycomb design

Fehr’s honeycomb automated storage and retrieval system uses a gripper structure that gently moves materials using non-hydraulic friction-locked motion sequences. Each system is customized per customer requirements. “This process starts with the material flow analysis, customized [material] in-and-out stations, material handling equipment, as well as a customized cassette design,” says David Veldung, president of Fehr Warehouse Solutions, headquartered in Switzerland with a U.S. location in Charlotte, North Carolina. “But what sets this system apart is the capability to integrate the system into the existing software environment and our customized warehouse management software fehrWMS.”

Triple-S uses Fehr’s honeycomb system with a capacity of 13,500 lbs. (6 metric tons) per storage location and a cassette for materials up to 45 ft. long. It was the first Fehr system of its capacity purchased in the U.S. in 2017. “Fehr has served customers since the 1940s but did not have an official presence in the U.S. until 2017,” Veldung says. “From the subsidiary in Charlotte, we serve the North American market with sales, service technicians, spare parts and support. The system Stein has is still to date the largest in North America when it comes to combined weight and cassette length.”

Picking station including chain conveyor.
Picking station including chain conveyor.
Material staging in front of one of the loading/picking stations.
Material staging in front of one of the loading/picking stations.
Labor shortage
Installing Fehr’s racking system was a strategic move for Triple-S, as it can be difficult to locate workers in the Denver area. “It’s tough getting and keeping labor, so we wanted to have the most state-of-the-art material handling system in place to reduce the number of people we need,” Stein says. “We use it two shifts every day. Any place we decide to open a greenfield plant in the future, we’ll be buying another one.”

Triple-S uses an ERP system to keep track of inventory, which stores what materials are kept on the Fehr racking system as well as other more traditional crane-served storage on other racks by different manufacturers. Stein says problems arose when the software data and collective physical inventory did not align. “We’d find that sometimes the physical inventory does not agree with what it said on the computer,” Stein says. “We have found that the inventory we keep using the Fehr system is more accurate than the rest of our inventory. Fehr’s system weighs everything, so if a worker makes a picking error, the system will tell him, and he can correct it before he packages the order.”

Automation is increasingly the way forward as companies throughout the supply chain deal with labor shortages due to a limited skills pool and COVID-19 pandemic fallout. “Our systems have helped customers save an entire shift while increasing output by 30 percent,” Veldung says. “The U.S. is still behind Europe when it comes to automation, but large corporations to small mom-and-pop steel trading businesses alike have long realized that without automation, they can’t be competitive in the market.”

Clear communication between customer and manufacturer ensures a smooth process, and Stein says an easy relationship influenced his decision to move forward with Fehr. “We felt at ease working with Fehr’s owners, the Lehners (Thomas and Marcel),” Stein says. “We hit it off, and that [relationship] combined with the open tech solution made us feel comfortable moving forward.”

Plate Product Manager Sam Stein inspecting stacker crane.
Plate Product Manager Sam Stein inspecting stacker crane.
Without a solid manufacturer-customer relationship, it won’t matter if the system works. “If you are unhappy with your contact at that manufacturer, be it the project manager or your service technician, you will not be happy with the system,” Veldung says. “We strongly feel that our customers are a part of the Fehr family and treat them that way. Therefore, the manufacturer-customer relationship has the highest priority.”

When a customer approaches Fehr, it is typically with more questions than answers. “Usually, the customer doesn’t know what they need,” Veldung says. “They have a problem and need help solving it. They have an idea how our automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) might help them with their challenges, and we help them develop a solution.

“A typical customer wants to future-proof their business while saving overhead and operating costs with a customized solution,” he continues. “This all differentiates Fehr from our competition. We typically fully customize our system and software. We don’t try to sell a standard solution to the customer.”

Despite difficulties during the last year, takeaways remain. Since opening its Charlotte location in 2017, Fehr has installed 12 systems in the U.S. “Like most of our customers, we too took a hit when the pandemic started,” Veldung says. “And some capital expenditure projects have been put on hold. But the pandemic opened the eyes of customers that they need to automate some of their operations. Most of our projects have since resumed, and the need for automation in a historically very labor-intensive industry has generated new business for us.”

In his nearly 40 years of working in metal fabrication, Stein says working through the COVID-19 pandemic was different compared to financial crises and steel pricing booms and busts of the past. “Cyclical market ups and downs are routine, but we never trained on how to deal with a pandemic,” he says. “We made the best decisions we could at the moment while recognizing our choices might be completely different the next day.

“In a distribution business where you work on pretty low margins, every dollar counts,” says Stein, “and we continue to plan as business ticks back up.”

Fehr Warehouse Solutions Inc.,
Charlotte, North Carolina, 704/666-8448,
Triple-S Steel Holdings Inc.,
Houston, 713/697-7105,