KASTO saw cells with a robotic handling system at the steel distributor EHG

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Advanced material flow for small batch sizes

Fully automated from the raw material to the cut and prefabricated workpiece ready for shipment: The Austrian steel distribution company EHG relies on the intelligent interlinking of internal logistics and prefabrication processes. The technology needed for this was provided by KASTO: The storage and sawing technology specialist installed two independent sawing cells at EHG, in which all components from material supply to container and pallet handling are integrated into one smart complete system.

More than just a steel distributor and supplier, EHG provides solutions as a systems provider and an expert partner: This is the company image conveyed by EHG Stahlzentrum GmbH & CO OG located in Austria. Founded in 1963 in Dornbirn, located near the German and Swiss border, the company has developed into an internationally active, independent full-service supplier for industry, business, skilled crafts and trade. With a total stock of around 45,000 tonnes, the range of goods includes more than 15,000 items in over 140 grades and countless dimensions of steel and metal. "With that, we have one of the best-stocked warehouses in all of Central Europe," explains Christian Rüf, Head of Logistics Systems and Processes at EHG. "This ensures a high degree of availability and short delivery times."

However, the wide range of services is just as important to EHG as the large warehouse assortment. "We don’t think in terms of products, but rather in terms of solutions" Rüf continues. "This means that we supply our customers with the items they need directly to the production which are already cut-to-size and just in time" This strategy also includes the broad delivery area: EHG provides not only to companies in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, but also Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania. The company network now comprises ten sites with a total of about 360 employees and around 6,000 customers. However, 90 per cent of deliveries are shipped from the headquarters in Dornbirn – either by a freight forwarder or with the company's vehicle fleet.

Large number of orders, small quantities and time constraints

Efficient and trouble-free processing and logistics processes are significant factors in the success of EHG's business model. "We process about 620,000 order items per year, primarily in small batches of less than ten items," says Rüf, describing the challenge. "During this process, we are under an enormous time crunch. In some cases, we only have one to two hours to complete an order." On this backdrop, EHG utilises highly advanced storage and processing technology: The Dornbirn site has, among other things, eight fully automatic high bay storage systems, 40 automatic band and circular sawing machines and two independent sawing centres. "This equipment makes us the most modern sawing and cutting centre in Europe", Rüf reports.

For many years, EHG has relied on the products and expertise of KASTO Maschinenbau GmbH & Co. KG. The company, located in Achern in southern Germany, offers automatic storage systems and sawing machines, robotic and handling solutions for metal bar stock, including the appurtenant software from a single source. "Our state-of-the-art high bay storage systems all stem from KASTO. For instance, we installed four UNICOMPACT honeycomb storage systems just for storing bars, tubes and profiles, as well as another one for storing sheet metal," Rüf describes. "Moreover, 27 KASTO automatic saws are in operation in Dornbirn, ranging from compact and flexible production circular saws to heavy-duty block and plate bandsaws. We have the ideal machine for any materials and dimensions."

Independent sawing centres save arduous work

The head of logistics is particularly proud of the two fully automatic sawing centres, in which all work steps are carried out completely operator free, from the feeding of the stored raw material to the sorting and stacking of the cut pieces. "Here, we process primarily frequently used materials in small batch sizes," Rüf explains. "The major advantage of this is the efficient and fast material changeover." The saws are directly connected to one of the high bay storage systems and are independently supplied with the required bar stock by its operating gantry crane (OGC), without the need of employee intervention. "That saves us the arduous work of manually feeding the steel into the machine, most of which is extremely heavy and up to six metres in length."

EHG commissioned the first of its two sawing centres in the year 2000 and the system was expanded in 2019. It is equipped with a high-performance circular saw from the KASTOvariospeed series. The machine is designed specifically for the fully automatic processing of quick-changing orders. "The decisive factor for this purchase was that after about 20 years of service, one of our saws had reached the end of its service life and required replacement. As a result, we decided to invest more in automation to make our processes more efficient and to relieve our employees." It was not surprising that KASTO was also selected for this project: After all, the company has not only been a preferred supplier for years, but as a manufacturer of both sawing and storage technology, it has the necessary expertise needed to implement integrated complete systems.

From the saw to the shipping box via robot

In turn, an industrial robot is connected to the saw, which automatically removes the finished cut pieces from the working area of the machine using various grippers, deburrs them and sorts them according to the order. The parts are placed in various sizes of cardboard and plastic boxes that are also supplied by machine. "KASTO has developed an outstanding solution for us", Rüf explains. "A container carousel with eight pallet spaces on which the robot can independently place and fill the respective boxes."

The cardboard and plastic boxes, each in six different sizes, enter the robot's work area via inclined roller conveyors. Based on the order data, the control system of the saw centre determines the suitable container for the respective workpieces, which the robot then places on the pallet provided with the help of a suction device. While the sections are being cut and stacked, a printer creates a shipping label for the current order in parallel. The robot also places the label in the corresponding box using the suction device. Once a pallet is filled, the carousel rotates one space further, making a new load carrier available. The employees use a pallet truck or forklift to transport the pallets with the prefabricated goods to the shipping department.

Pallet buffer enables autonomous operation

The system's control system is connected to the warehouse management system used at EHG via an interface created specifically for this purpose. "This allows us to generate and process orders fully automatically," says Rüf, explaining the advantages. "We benefit from a single controlled and managed material flow, with little human intervention required throughout the process from incoming to outgoing goods." Thanks to the buffer of up to eight pallets, we can also operate the sawing centre autonomously over a more extended period, for instance, overnight. "This ensures a high output and efficient processing of all incurring orders," describes the satisfied Head of Logistics.

KASTO's solution impressed those responsible at EHG to such an extent that in 2020, they expanded another sawing centre, which was purchased in 2007, with new sawing technology. "The primary reason for this was that we wanted to expand our existing high bay storage system and at the same time create an additional order picking hall," Rüf explains. "The new sawing cell is integrated into our facilities in such a way that it can independently access stock from two storage areas." It is equipped with the high-performance automatic circular sawing machine KASTOgripspeed C 10, designed for the equally fast and precise cutting of different types of steel. One particular advantage of the machine is its feed vice technology, which ensures a long service life with low wear. The second sawing centre is likewise equipped with a handling robot and a container carousel. "With this saw and the corresponding peripheral devices, we have once again significantly expanded our capacities and are now optimally equipped for the increasing number of orders with small batch sizes," explains Rüf.

Result: Faster, improved and more efficient work

EHG is fully satisfied with its new KASTO systems. "The integration of the individual machines into a continuous system is certainly unique in this form," finds Rüf. "Of course, it provides us with the advantage of having only one contact person to take care of all of our questions and concerns." In case of malfunctions, the experts from KASTO can connect to the system via remote maintenance and quickly provide assistance to avoid expensive downtimes. However, this is rarely needed: "The sawing cells are extremely reliable and easy to operate," Rüf notes. "They are a true asset to our company, enabling us to complete our work faster, better and more efficiently."