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Making more time for the business essentials: Creating a fully automated pharmacy warehouse

KLS Steuerungstechnik GmbH cognex dataman package inspection robot arm picker

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Previously, the walk from the sales counter of the pharmacy to the medication drawer wasted valuable time. Today, the fully automated picking system for European pharmacies by KLS requires only eight seconds. Image-based Cognex DataMan® 500 barcode readers can now guarantee rapid resupplying from the warehouse.

For many years, the pharmacy business was thriving. But with the emergence of online retailers, this era is slowly coming to an end. Increased efficiency and process optimization have become hot topics for the professional pharmacist. Consulting and customer loyalty play an increasingly important role in pharmacy competition. An important technology that assists in overall customer service is a fully automated warehousing system. With these types of systems in place, more time is available for customer contact—valuable time that can be used to generate additional sales. In addition to the quick picking of products, the initial delivery and warehousing of products is also important because several hundred new products can arrive each hour at large pharmacies. The fully automated warehousing system at KLS Steuerungstechnik GmbH, located in Weiskirchen, Germany, achieves this with ease thanks to image-based DataMan 500 barcode readers from Cognex. The DataMan 500 scans each product as it arrives and transfers the data to the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system so all warehoused items are cataloged. As a stand-alone system, the DataMan 500 can deal with an hourly throughput of 450 units.

All codes in view

At KLS, the handling of incoming goods is simple and efficient because of the fully automated system. The pharmacy staff member places the delivered goods on an incoming conveyor which transports the unsorted products, generally folded boxes, to a turntable where a conventional smart camera vision system detects and measures each individual package. A vacuum gripper then moves to the product’s position and picks it up. The gripper moves the box in front of two DataMan 500 barcode readers and performs a 360° rotation. One DataMan 500 reads barcodes, Data Matrix codes, national drug codes, expiry dates, and lot numbers on the sides of the package, and the second DataMan 500, using a tilted mirror, detects the information found on the bottom of the package. In the event that the code is located on the upper side that is concealed by the gripper, it puts the box down briefly in front of the two DataMan 500 readers, which then inspect the sixth and last side. The DataMan 500 readers pass the acquired information on to the KLS ERP system.

Optimal space utilization

Once the two DataMan 500 readers have transferred the data, the control software assigns the product to the appropriate location for picking. The conveyor delivers each package to its assigned destination based upon its dimensions as recorded by the smart camera system. This is the key to an automated warehouse picking system.

The modular design of the warehousing system flexibly adapts to the physical circumstances in five cm increments. For example, a warehousing area of 4.5 m by 3.0 m has enough space for up to 25,000 packages. Depending on the product turnover and the warehouse volume, the modular system can be expanded without limitation.

No downtime along the line

The PC-controlled system with connected laser printer is equipped with an uninterruptible power supply which acts as a safety net in the event of mechanical failure or power outages. Instead of resulting in a short-term shutdown, employees can print out the codes of individual products and manually remove the drugs from the storage drawers. Upon the system’s restart, the printed codes can then be read into the control system ensuring an uninterrupted process. This means that the KLS warehousing system with Cognex ID technology is ready for any eventuality.

Imagers instead of lasers

The DataMan 500 image-based code reader replaced laser scanners that KLS had previously used. DataMan 500 offers variable focus liquid lens technology, which allows it to achieve a highly flexible depth of field—even when the package moves extremely fast. With the aid of its IDMax® code reading software, the DataMan 500 achieves higher read rates than a laser scanner and identifies codes that a laser cannot, for example, distorted, blurry, small, or extremely low-contrast codes. Even codes on reflective packaging pose no problems for the DataMan 500. It also keeps pace with the high speed system by achieving image capture rates of up to 1,000 frames per second. "With the DataMan 500, we especially appreciate its speed and accuracy," says development engineer Daniel Hauch of KLS Steuerungstechnik. "It offers us considerably more handling flexibility than our previous systems." The new system reduces the workload of pharmacies substantially and opens up new revenue potential.

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