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SUPERVALU and WITRON: On the leading edge

In a span of only seven years, WITRON’s vision of a fully automated case picking system has evolved from concept to worldwide success.  Companies throughout North America and Europe are aggressively pursuing WITRON’s latest offering, with some clients ordering their second, third, or even fourth such system.

WITRON bills its fully automated case picking system as “OPM” (Order Picking Machinery).   The patented OPM technology incorporates a variety of processes to automatically “produce” mixed order pallets in a manner that maximizes order pallet stability, order pallet density, and store-aisle friendliness.  With the exception of receiving and shipping, the entire OPM system operates with virtually no direct labor.

 

SUPERVALU’s second fully automated case picking system is a tremendous success

SUPERVALU was the second North American retailer to implement WITRON’s OPM.  Their Hopkins, MN facility was WITRON’s third OPM installation in the United States when it went live in November of 2006.  SUPERVALU’s Lancaster, PA facility was the third project with WITRON. Like the Hopkins installation, Lancaster was also a retrofit.  Despite the novelty of fully automated case picking, SUPERVALU recognized that such an approach was necessary to maintain its competitive advantage as the largest wholesaler in the United States.   SUPERVALU’s decision to pioneer case picking automation within the wholesale market has certainly paid off.  SUPERVALU’s Lancaster facility consistently ranks as one of the top performers in their network of 29 DCs across the United States.  “OPM has exceeded our expectations.  After nearly two years of successful operation at Lancaster, OPM has proven it can effectively handle our daily operations while remaining flexible enough to respond to our seasonal requirements.  OPM is not only operationally effective, it is also economically efficient.  We see this technology as a blueprint for other case picking DCs in our network” said Fred Boehler, senior vice president, supply chain from SUPERVALU.  

 

Fully automated case picking using WITRON’s OPM

Although revolutionary in its approach, the majority of the components and processes that drive the OPM are standard within the world of warehouse automation.  The process begins with receiving, where vendor pallets are manually unloaded from inbound trailers and conveyed to a pallet AS/RS for storage.  At Lancaster, SUPERVALU feeds a 10-aisle pallet AS/RS from 6 receiving lanes.  Poor quality vendor pallets are automatically detected and exchanged in receiving to ensure the highest possible system availability.  The pallet AS/RS at Lancaster can hold more than 54,000 pallets in double-deep locations.

While the pallet AS/RS serves as reserve storage, the product required for picking is held in a tray AS/RS.  WITRON’s WMS triggers replenishment from the pallet AS/RS to the tray AS/RS based on sophisticated algorithms.  These replenishment algorithms consider SKU velocity based on sales history, forecast data, and upcoming promotions to make sure the right product is available for today’s orders.  WITRON’s replenishment strategies are the cornerstone of OPM’s success.  They ensure the highest possible store service level in terms of pick accuracy, product availability, and just-in-time delivery for SUPERVALU’s customers.

The process of transferring cases from pallet to tray during replenishment is also automated.  The Lancaster warehouse has 8 depalletizing machines that use suction heads and inflatable bellows to strip layers of cases from replenishment pallets.  WITRON’s conveyor system singulates this layer into a stream so that individual cases can be automatically placed atop plastic trays. Lancaster uses two sizes of plastic trays.  WITRON determines the proper tray size for each SKU based on actual case dimensions to ensure maximize storage efficiency.  “The close cooperation between SUPERVALU and WITRON with respect to product handling was amazing”, says Bernd Lindner, WITRON’s project manager.  “We were able to adjust our system parameters such that 95 percent of SUPERVALU’s 18,000 SKUs could be handled automatically through the entire system.” 

After depalletizing, single case trays are stored in the tray AS/RS that feeds the automatic pallet building process.  The Lancaster tray AS/RS consists of 44 cranes, with more than 400,000 trays to accommodate their 17,000 SKUs.  The tray warehouse is designed such that all SKUs are accessible for pallet building.  The miniload cranes in the tray warehouse are extremely fast and efficient, handling 2 large trays or 4 small trays at one time.

Trays are retrieved from storage based on actual order demands and conveyed to the COM (Case Order Machine) where pallet building takes place.  WITRON’s proprietary “pack pattern software” determines the proper sequence of trays for automatic pallet building based on various parameters like case size, weight, crushability, and family group rules.    

The pack pattern software provides the ability to sequence the cases for the optimal pallet build, while the COM itself provides the mechanical means to remove the cases from their trays and stack them onto the pallet.  The COM utilizes a unique pushing mechanism rather than a traditional robotic gripper.  This approach minimizes the problems associated with poor packaging and eliminates any gaps between cases on the order pallet.  Lancaster features 22 COMs, giving SUPERVALU the capability to pick 256,000 cases per day.  The completed order pallet is automatically stretchwrapped and labeled after pallet build to maintain its integrity in shipping and during transport to the stores. 

 

A smooth implementation and ramp-up  

Despite the size and complexity of the Lancaster project, implementation and ramp-up was surprisingly smooth.  WITRON’s experience from the SUPERVALU Hopkins project, and tight cooperation with SUPERVALU’s operational team allowed Lancaster to start-up on-time and in-budget.  “SUPERVALU has great people, and their support on this project was fantastic”, says Bernd Lindner, WITRON’s project manager.  “The success of Lancaster is a testament to the power of great teamwork and cooperation.”  Lancaster was picking and shipping more than 100,000 cases per day only 1 -2 months after go-live.  More importantly, store service was never interrupted during this time.  The system has continued to operate at high-level since ramp-up.  To date, Lancaster has picked more than 100 million cases and delivered more than 1.3 million order pallets, servicing nearly 400 stores each day.  

 

The major benefits for SUPERVALU

The OPM system was able to fit in the existing Lancaster facility while the AS/RS pallet load system was a building addition of 175,000 square feet by 70 feet high.  The retrofit of the existing facility with OPM technology allows SUPERVALU to handle more volume in a smaller footprint.

Without the need for a pickfront, OPM systems can reduce conventional warehouse footprints by 40%.  WITRON is quick to point out that even greater footprint savings are possible in greenfield projects where building height can be maximized.

OPM eliminates the picking and replenishment labor required in a conventional case picking operation.  “The labor savings with OPM are very attractive to our clients when they consider their operating environments today, and even more so when they look twenty or thirty years ahead”, says Karl Hoegen, WITRON’s CEO North America.   “Our customers recognize that finding warehouse labor will only become more challenging in the future.  The pool of people who are willing to lift tons of cases each day, sometimes in stifling heat or freezing cold, will get smaller in the years ahead.  Furthermore, OPM makes warehouse jobs more attractive and therefore makes retaining employees much easier.”  Although labor is still required on the receiving and shipping docks, WITRON’s order routing means that picked pallets are dispatched in a more orderly sequence to shipping.  Indirect labor for such tasks as inventory control and auditing can be eliminated or significantly reduced.  Another major benefit is the reduction in conventional material handling equipment, including reach trucks, forklifts, picking cars, and battery charging equipment.  “Apart from these financial savings, the OPM means less physically demanding work for associates, offering a more technically advanced work environment  ”, says Jeff Fritz, Lancaster senior director of operations for SUPERVALU.  This translates into lower health and safety costs, improved employee retention, and the ability to attract a new generation of warehouse workers.”

“As a service organization, we are always looking to continuously improve our customers’ experience”, says Beth Kroutch, Lancaster general manager from SUPERVALU.  Although OPM offers tremendous labor savings within the warehouse, the benefits extend far beyond the four walls.  OPM eliminates picking errors, reduces damage, and improves store shelf replenishment efficiency, thereby reducing labor hours required in the stores.  These service enhancements translate to benefit at retail, whether they are SUPERVALU-owned stores or third party customers”. 

SUPERVALU also sees OPM as a powerful weapon against today’s rising fuel prices.  SUPERVALU points to recent studies that place transportation at 35% of the total supply chain cost. “OPM allows us to produce more dense pallets, improving our trailer cube, and thereby saving transportation dollars”, says Fred Boehler of SUPERVALU.

 

WITRON’s OPM experience

WITRON was the first integrator to develop a fully automated case picking system.  With 6 years of automated case picking experience, WITRON’s resume includes 300 COMs across 18 OPM projects in 6 countries.  Their OPM systems can be found in both ambient and temperature-controlled environments.  To date, WITRON OPM systems have picked more than 2.5 billion cases and produced more than 32 million order pallets. 

OPM gives WITRON the flexibility to automatically load cases onto various transport units, including plastic and wooden pallets, roll cages, and customer-specific carriers. 

Although well ahead of its competition, WITRON is not resting its six years of automated case picking experience.  In the spirit of continuous improvement, WITRON has already introduced the next generation of its OPM technology.  Enhancements in technology and material flows, result in a number of benefits.  Among others, some of these benefits include fewer moving parts, higher performance, reduced footprint, and greater operational and economic efficiency. 

 

WITRON Integrated Logistics Corporation

WITRON Integrated Logistics, located in Arlington Heights, IL, is a worldwide leader in material handling automation.  WITRON's core competence is the design and implementation of innovative logistics systems.  With more than 39 years of experience in distribution center automation, WITRON focuses on achieving the most efficient methods of order picking and replenishment for its customers.  In turn, WITRON’s customers reap the benefits of significant cost reductions from labor and footprint savings. 

As a turn-key systems integrator, WITRON takes complete responsibility for all phases of a project from design and implementation through ramp-up and maintenance.  Headquartered in Parkstein, Germany, WITRON has grown to include subsidiaries in the USA, Canada, United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and Spain.