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WITRON DDS: Cost-Efficient Automation of Food Drive-Throughs and Darkstores

In almost all industry sectors, E-Commerce is well positioned to surpass the traditional brick and mortar store. Only the food industry has been considered the great exception so far. Even today, Internet food retail is still in its development phase. But increasing development potential is also identified here: For the coming years, experts expect a significant increase in the amount of items being purchased online.  

The direct supply of customers with food is less of a supply chain problem, but rather an organizational problem. One typical example for this is when the end customer is not at home when the goods arrive. Another problem would be that items are easily perishable. Consequently, the food retailers are more and more forced to develop innovative concepts to enable consumers to purchase dry goods, as well as, fresh and frozen products via the Internet. 

The innovative Food Multi-Channel concept (FMC) of the general contractor WITRON Logistik + Informatik GmbH covers a wide variety of strategies and functionalities to supply all distribution channels in food retail in an efficient and cost-effective manner. A highly dynamic Multi-Channel logistics center is the base requirement for an efficient Supply Chain that serves highly dynamic distribution points (drive-throughs, darkstores, and pick-up points) as well as a direct home supply of items ordered via the Internet. The DDS (Drive Darkstore System) is an automated solution that handles all of these channels.  

In some countries, so-called "drive-throughs" have proven to be a successful business model: The concept is simple: The customer orders the goods on the Internet using a PC, tablet, or smartphone, at the workplace, at home, or on the road, and picks them up the same day at a pick-up location on the way home from work for example. Digitally paid, packed into bags, and taken to the car by a friendly drive-through employee. For example, the French market leader E. Leclerc has been operating more than 500 of these sales points with sizes ranging from 200 square meters / 2,153 square feet to 1,600 square meters / 17,222 square feet. This cross-channel model is also becoming increasingly popular in other European countries and North America as well.  

Another type of this cross-channel principle is the so-called darkstore. Rather than picking up the goods, the customer receives the purchased items at home supplied from a regional trans-shipment center. 

The simplicity of the system is mostly limited by the logistics behind it. It requires specific logistical background processes to have the goods available on demand, at the right time, and in the right quality. These processes can be implemented in a cost-efficient manner through the patented WITRON DDS solution (Drive Darkstore System). While the processes in the drive-through or darkstore have been executed in a conventional manner so far, the WITRON solution reaches high optimization through a reasonably selected automation degree.  

The supply of the drive-throughs and darkstores is done via the central warehouse of the food retailer. The single items are centrally repacked into totes at ergonomic workstations for several drive-throughs or darkstores - all packaging waste is already disposed. The totes are then automatically stacked onto pallets and transported to the drive-throughs or darkstores. Once arrived, the totes are depalletized and stored into an automated tote warehouse. To store the entire article assortment - dry, fresh, fruits + vegetables, frozen - in a space-saving manner, the complete AS/RS is divided into different temperature zones and individually adapted in a modular way according to the size and throughput of every single drive-through or darkstore.  

The order picking is separated into fast- and slow-mover areas.  

The picking of slow-movers is done according to the "goods-to-person" principle. Highly dynamic cranes transport the storage totes in a sequence-friendly manner to ergonomic workstations. Here, the operator picks from the storage tote into the order tote. Plastic bags or cooler bags equipped with cooling elements will be provided for picking at the workstations. Once picking is completed, the order tote will be buffered in an order consolidation buffer.  

The picking of fast-movers is done directly from the storage pallet onto a special pick rack that is transported on a forklift. This allows picking of up to six orders at the same time. The picker is guided by a pick-by-light system.  Once picking is completed, the totes are either buffered in a consolidation buffer or directly used as order start tote. The pick rack itself will be equipped with new order totes. 

Depending on the DDS type, shipping is done in different manners: In the drive-through, the customer identifies himself/herself at the pick-up location, then all order totes belonging to one order will move from the order consolidation buffer to the respective area - mechanically and just-in-time - placed onto a roll container by a drive-through operator, and loaded into the customer's vehicle.  The drive-through operator returns the empty storage totes into the system. 

Dispatch in the darkstore is mostly done by shipping companies. The uncooled order totes are stacked onto a dolly directly after picking and automatically provided in the dispatch area in a route-optimized manner. After the picking process, cooled and deep-freezer totes are stored in the respective temperature area until they are ready for shipping.  

Moreover, the WITRON DDS solution offers additional flexible possibilities to increase the reach and volume of the customer business. With so-called pick-up points that only consist of the dispatch area of a drive-through and that are supplied by existing drive-throughs or darkstores, it is possible to efficiently use strategically convenient areas (for example in close proximity to sales areas of competitors). As additional distribution location, pick-up points also increase the service quality and the proximity to customers at a low investment thanks to the extremely small area that is required.  

The DDS concept including the 3-in-1 solution (drive-through, darkstore, pick-up point) provides the following benefits for food retailers:

  • Increase of the service level for the drive-through customer by:

    • short wait times
    • more flexible pick-up times 

  • Increase of cost-efficiency by: 

    • personnel savings of up to 60% compared to a conventional solution
    • higher throughput compared to a conventional solution
    • significantly smaller logistics area compared to a conventional solution
    • optimization of the Supply Chain between the central warehouse and the drive-through

  • Increase of flexibility by:

    • integration of the complete article range (fast-movers, slow-movers, dry, perishable, frozen) into one automated logistics system
    • modular mechanization for drive-throughs / darkstores of different sizes
    • automated order consolidation of the entire article range
    • reduction of the throughput times