India-based Aurobindo Pharma manufactures and distributes millions of generic pharmaceuticals to more than 150 countries, overseeing a complex, global operation where safety, security, and speed are paramount.
Seeking to manage its expanding U.S. footprint, the company broke ground in 2016 on a new state-of-the-art 567,000 sq. ft. distribution center in East Windsor, NJ. Located about 50 miles outside of New York City, the facility is FDA-approved, Current Good Manufacturing Practices-compliant (cGMP), and powered by 39,000 rooftop solar panels.
It serves as the exclusive hub for Aurobindo Pharma USA, the company’s vertically integrated U.S. distribution entity. The facility currently ships more than 200 million units annually across 200 product categories to hospitals, doctor’s offices, commercial pharmacies, and retail outlets nationwide. With annual growth routinely surpassing double digits per year, even this advanced operation required further automation investments to meet current and future demands.
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One of the company’s manufacturing sites in India had already enjoyed great success with StorFast ASRS, a system engineered by Signode, a global provider of packaging automation. The company decided to invest in the system for its New Jersey operation in late 2017, with further build-out in 2020. “We were able to work collaboratively with the global team at Signode to develop and implement a strategy that had the ability to address our ambitious growth objectives,” said James Downey, senior director of distribution, Aurobindo Pharma USA.
The investment paid off. Aurobindo Pharma’s U.S. nerve center has dramatically amped up its warehouse storage capacity, from 7,000 pallets to 34,000 pallets, a remarkable 450% increase. “Optimal outcomes start with listening to the customer, learning about their needs, then meeting them with the right scalable solutions that ensure their current and future demands are met and accounted for,” said Byron J. Paul, Group President, Automation & Packaging Technologies, Signode. “Our partnership with Aurobindo is a perfect example of this in action.”
ASRS: Path to efficiency
The StorFast ASRS system provides high-density, 24/7-access to all products in the warehouse. The shuttle & cart system allows multiple orders to be processed simultaneously and can flex between high-volume input and peak shipping schedules to optimize utilization and efficiency at all times.
The general flow of goods involves the following:
Entry: Products typically arrive in cartons inside of containers from the production facility by truck. Currently, cartons are unloaded and palletized manually. This is an area identified for the next phase of the automation project.
Wrapping: Pallets go to an automatic wrapper before being loaded into the ASRS warehouse.
Retrieval: Pallets are retrieved automatically from the ASRS and sent either as a complete pallet directly to the loading area or to a pick and pack area where mixed pallets are created for shipment to individual customer locations. Partial pallets are automatically returned to the ASRS warehouse.
Loading: Pallets are loaded onto trucks for delivery via forklift.
While the StorFast ASRS system has been gaining popularity in both existing and new facilities across industries, Aurobindo Pharma USA is the first U.S.-based pharmaceutical warehouse and distribution center to deploy an ASRS. “This sophisticated system seamlessly manages the inbound and outbound storage and retrieval of up to 80 pallets per hour simultaneously,” said Scott Pruner, distribution manager, Aurobindo Pharma USA. "In one month, that equates to approximately 18 million units, which is a high benchmark we couldn't reach without the StorFast system."
The pallets can also be stacked as high as is needed, making use of untapped vertical warehouse space. In dense urban environments where land is at a premium, like the New York City metropolitan area, the ability to “build up instead of out” allows the company to maximize its automation investment through smart, vertical scalability. In this application, the system spans seven floors.
Simplifying complex system integrations
Advanced automated warehouse systems are coordinated, maintained, and operated by interwoven and complex technology, operations, and human interactions. Signode designed a complete operating system, with StorFast ASRS at its core, that manages the location of every pallet for optimal pallet traffic. It is seamlessly integrated with Aurobindo Pharma USA’s existing Enterprise Resource Planning and Warehouse Management System (WMS) to ensure protection and security throughout the product journey.
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Order management software indicates what products are required to fulfill a specific customer request. The WMS determines which pallets should be pulled from the warehouse for fulfillment and the ASRS control system determines the sequence of processing and guides carts, shuttles, and lifts to optimize the throughput and ensure product is presented for shipping to meet time requirements.
“It’s a very intelligent system that can do wonders,” said Khantesh Pandya, distribution manager, Aurobindo Pharma USA. “There are no issues with its ability to smoothly interface with our current systems—with accurate data-transfer throughout the process.”
Data transfer starts with product arrival at the facility, where U.S. regulatory agencies stand at the ready to verify the overseas shipments, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), FDA, the Department of Agriculture, and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“ASRS is the best thing we’ve ever invested in,” said Lorie Johnson Lawson, distribution manager, inbound import receiving, Aurobindo Pharma USA. “From where we are now, we can move more product faster and with greater accuracy to our customers.”
Arrivals are tracked and traced in the system. Pallets are sorted and placed in the most appropriate location—based on volume, product type, expiration date and other factors—and then stored until ready for retrieval-based order fulfillment needs. For instance, high volume items are stored on lower levels and closer to picking stations in order to maximize throughput. In addition, high volume items are placed in dedicated rows in the warehouse to minimize pallet movement. These rules are defined by the user and can be adjusted based on changing order patterns, seasonality, product portfolio changes, etc. Reports and dashboards assist in the adjustment of pallet positioning.
For products near expiry, the WMS defines Date Code rules and the Signode ASRS software complies by delivering the oldest pallets first for picking and fulfillment. Pallets can be requested by the WMS software for retrieval if required based on date code requirements.
“Increased control yields required compliance and are among the system’s best benefits,” said Downey. “We can easily fill both large and small orders, everything from full pallets to cases for wholesalers and retailers to individual cartons delivered to your local doctor’s office or neighborhood pharmacy.”
Because some shipments contain more than one type of medication, they must be assembled by pulling products from various pallets. The StorFast system knows which pallet to pull from—so if there is a pre-picked partial pallet that meets the need, the system pulls from there instead of retrieving a full pallet.
Large orders are proactively planned; the system allows for order sequencing so that larger orders can be picked and packed during slower processing times, optimizing the number of orders that can be fulfilled during peak delivery times. When Aurobindo Pharma USA has to prepare time-sensitive shipments, it can avoid time crunches, versus suddenly having to shift gears and work at double the speed to meet important deadlines.
For added efficiency—and because customers with high volume orders tend to procure full pallets—orders can be delivered directly from the ASRS warehouse to the shipping area, automatically bypassing the mixed pallet picking area.
Scalability and customization are built into the system that was designed through the collaboration of the two global organizations. Moving from manual to automated wasn’t without its challenges during the three-month installation and testing period. “Signode’s support at every step of the process made a huge difference,” said Pandya. “We had highly skilled and qualified Signode technicians who were on site every day, supporting us through the transition, and we never had issues with pallet traceability or orders unfilled.”
Future-proofing for growth
The StorFast system is designed to grow as quickly as Aurobindo Pharma USA, which is still in the midst of rapid expansion. The company notes that an additional 20 to 50 of its products are in the FDA-approval pipeline, with continuing double-digit growth projected year-over-year. The modular system can easily be added to and combined with future automation enhancements.
In fact, Aurobindo originally was looking for a 20,000-pallet location system but worked with Signode mid-planning to increase it to the current 34,000. Future expansions are already being planned and the facility has the capacity to hold more than 40,000 pallets.
“This only comes together with the commitment of senior management to provide the resources, systems, and capital needed for us to deliver the volume and precision our customers expect,” said Downey.
Added Pruner, the facility’s distribution manager: “Without Signode and StorFast ASRS, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”