Be innovative. Be committed. Be successful.

Major challenge successfully overcome

Technische Unie, the largest wholesaler for electrical, sanitary, and mechanical installations in the Netherlands, is placing its trust in Witron’s Dynamic Picking System (DPS) to meet its order picking needs and to supply its customers with small-volume products. In three project phases, the existing logistics center in Alphen aan den Rijn has been equipped with a state-of-the-art automated logistics solution without any interruption to the on-going operation. The system has been integrated into the existing building.

In the interest of sustainably improving the efficiency and cost effectiveness of all the logistics processes at the Alphen distribution center, and to lay the foundation for future growth, Technische Unie has successfully implemented an extensive logistics restructuring project with Witron’s help. The centerpiece of the refurbished plant is Witron’s DPS system. The planning and realization specialist from Parkstein, Germany, installed its DPS in three stages between 2008 and 2011 during on-going operation. “Obviously you expect a lot of advantages from a new system like this, and these expectations have been met. At the start, however, our main premise with the system conversion was that it should not have any adverse impact on delivery capability”, says Bart Schoonderwoerd, Logistics Director at Technische Unie. “The work was therefore carried out mainly on weekends and during the night. This allowed us to continue supplying customers almost entirely without interruption.” Furthermore, Witron precisely tested all the processes beforehand using a simulation program. “Our customers generally did not notice that the conversion was taking place. And that is what made the execution of this extremely demanding assignment so extraordinary”, comments Schoonderwoerd.

Competitive advantage from overnight delivery 

The Alphen logistics center, located in the heart of the Netherlands, plays a hugely important role in Technische Unie’s distribution network. From here, the wholesaler ships all small-volume products, at least 80 percent of its article range, to customers throughout the entire country. A second distribution center in Strijen in the south of the Netherlands handles the distribution of large-volume products – primarily using pallets. The deliveries from the two distribution centers come together in a customized fashion at one of the 20 transshipment points nationwide. Up to 250 truckloads, or 10,000 individual deliveries, reach customers locally each day in this way. One major challenge for Technische Unie is the guarantee of next-day delivery. Articles that are ordered before 5.30 p.m. are picked by no later than 11 p.m. and arrive at the customer on the following day. “With Witron’s DPS, we can guarantee this overnight or 24-hour delivery,”, says Logistics Director Bart Schoonderwoerd. “Since the system was introduced, customer satisfaction has increased due to the fact that it is much easier for us to prioritize orders and respond quickly and flexibly to changes in the order structure.”

DPS integrated into the existing building

Before DPS, the existing processes within the distribution center were struggling to cope with increasing sales volume and an ever-expanding product range. A comprehensive restructuring of the logistics processes was required if the company was to continue its guarantee of high service level for its customers. Complicating the situation was the fact that the existing infrastructure had to be used during any implementation.  Witron and Technische Unie developed a solution whereby Witron’s DPS could be rolled out in three phases. The first phase, during which all the fast-movers were integrated in the new system was completed in July 2008. The second phase involving the transfer of some of the slow-movers and the entire returns processing section was finalized in October 2009. During the third phase, which went live in December 2010, the rest of the slow-movers were moved into the DPS system – all the while without interrupting on-going operation – until all the different articles, almost 80,000 altogether, were available via the DPS. “One of the really big advantages of the DPS system is the fact that we are able to use the same technical infrastructure for both slow-moving and fast-moving articles”, says Ron Kars, Distribution Center Manager. “The system is extremely flexible when it comes to this.” In addition, ergonomic considerations were also an important aspect that played a key role in the decision to opt for the DPS. “Our operators used to have to cover huge distances – some up to 20 kilometers a day. Finding an effective remedy for this situation was right at the top of our list of priorities”, explains Ron Kars. “Thanks to the DPS, distances have been shortened by up to 75 percent.” Furthermore, the articles are so much easier to reach in the DPS compared to the old system, and all the work processes have been coordinated perfectly. There is no more lifting of storage or order totes because these are moved by stacker cranes or lines of conveyors. And, thanks to compact storage and minimal space requirements, the DPS system also offers the option for further expansion, whereas previously this had become impossible in the same space. “With the growth anticipated by Technische Unie, the capacities needed up to around 2016 are now in place, whatever happens”, says Ron Kars.

Up to 70,000 Orderlines on one peak day

The Dynamic Picking System (DPS) is based on the principles of both goods-to-man and man-to-goods picking. Depending on the relevant order structure, the articles are arranged in the pick front either permanently or on a demand-oriented basis, such that the pick front is optimized at all times. Replenishment of the picking zones is carried out by stacker cranes controlled by the system. The DPS continuously monitors and adjusts the classification of the article structure, with constant and efficient communication between Technische Unie’s IT system and Witron’s Warehouse Management System. “With our systems, we always attach the utmost importance to a holistic solution – cost effectiveness, flexibility, availability, and ergonomics”, says Jack Kuypers, Branch Manager at Witron and the contact for clients in Northern and Western Europe. “With the DPS, we have created a sustainable competitive advantage for Technische Unie in its marketplace, and have designed the company’s logistics to handle future challenges.”

Individual products are removed from inbound pallets and placed into totes at one of 18 repack workstations. From here, totes are automatically transported into the DPS system. The picking operation is supported by a pick-by-light system. The distances that employees must walk are shortened significantly due to both static and dynamic staging of warehouse articles, making it possible to achieve a very high picking output compared to conventional solutions. On a peak day, up to 70,000  Orderlines from a range of 78,000 articles are picked at 60 workstations at Technische Unie. The sophisticated DPS technology, which has proven its worth in numerous practical projects across various industries, also guarantees an extremely high level of service and goods availability by taking the wishes of individual stores and customers into consideration. After picking, the system then transports the picked customer totes to a so-called Order Consolidation Buffer, where they are assembled, placed in intermediate storage, and combined in an order-specific, customized and route-optimized fashion for onward transportation on shipping trailers.

50 percent fewer picking errors

The existing article structure provided additional potential for optimization. “Given that the very broad product range contains many small-volume and slow-moving articles, we subdivided the totes up to three times”, explains Witron Project Manager Hans Schütz. “That gives us the option to respond even more flexibly to specific requirements and to save additional storage space again.” A further highlight is the fact that the customer totes also serve as warehouse totes – and vice versa. This means that orders can also be picked directly into the customer totes. In the past there were very different sizes of totes in circulation, which is no longer the case. And empty totes can be reused straightaway without having to be removed from the system as before.

The results speak for themselves. “The DPS system has lowered the error rate in picking by 50 percent compared to the old system”, says Ron Kars. One really decisive factor in the success of the project has certainly been the professionalism of the partners on both sides, who repeatedly tested the processes beforehand until they reached the highest possible standard of quality. “Witron is a very dependable and flexible partner, with a superb understanding of its business. We were reassured of this on our visits to numerous reference projects when we were looking for a suitable supplier”, explains Kars. “It is also particularly important that communication involves direct contact between the specialists of both logistics partners.” Even the smallest detail can have an undesirable impact on a process, and therefore care is required in both design and realization. The organizational effort has paid off. Efficiency and productivity in logistics have risen markedly, and personnel costs have been reduced considerably. “In addition, we have the option in the next few years to increase the volume by another 30 percent in the course of a fourth construction phase”, says Kars. “Though, we will only be interested in doing that once the existing plant really has reached its capacity limit. In any case, we are prepared for an automated future.”

Key figures for the logistics center
Tote warehouse
Tote storage positions:191,000
Number of aisles: 9
Number of stacker cranes: 18
Picking workstations:60
Repacking stations:18
Order Consolidation Buffer
Number of aisles: 7
Tote storage positions:  6,000
Dynamic data (peak day)
Articles held in stock:78,000
- of which in stock totes:22,000
- of which in stock inserts:56,000
Picking units: 580,000
Order lines:70,000
Replenishment totes:14,000
Dispatch totes:21,000
Maximum dispatch totes per hour:1,600