How WITRON automates fresh produce logistics economically around the globe

Fresh produce logistics

09.11.2022 - 6 minutes reading time
The lack of skilled workers is affecting fresh produce warehouses all over the world. “Many of our customers can no longer find pickers”, explains Daniel Kick from WITRON. He works at WITRON’s Logistikhof and has been designing innovative and highly dynamic logistics centers for customers in Europe, North America, and Australia for more than 15 years in the team around company founder Walter Winkler.

“Working in the fresh produce area at low temperatures of up to minus 25 degrees Celsius is not comfortable. On top of that, the employees have to move boxes weighing up to 25 kg, with 200 picks per hour. Consequently, a picker lifts an average of between 10 and 14 tons a day, sometimes even more. This is quite strenuous”, emphasizes the Upper Palatinate. “Our customers have recognized this and are specifically looking for sustainable, ergonomic, and humane solutions.” In order to provide effective relief for employees based on leading-edge logistics processes, automation in the fresh produce sector is therefore rapidly picking up speed, they say at WITRON. Logistics experts are also focusing on decision criteria such as cost-efficiency, product / store service, and flexibility.

Almost every country and every continent has its own special requirements. In the past, retailers ordered the OPM (Order Picking Machinery) mainly for the dry goods assortment, because the system can handle a wide range of items very well. In the meantime, more than one third of the OPM projects are temperature-controlled. What makes OPM special is that the solution finds the perfect stacking pattern for the items. “If, for example, I have to combine yogurt crates with totes and a variety of other packaging types onto the store pallet or roll container, then optimal sorting is crucial”, explains Kick.

Market leader in food retail logistics

"Being able to offer consumers fresh and ultra-fresh products with maximum product quality via a wide variety of distribution channels is undoubtedly the logistical pinnacle in the distribution centers of food retailers."

Daniel Kick, Logistics Design, WITRON

“We have a wealth of experience in food retailing and see ourselves as the global market leader in automated warehouse logistics in this sector”, emphasizes the logistics designer. “Being able to offer consumers fresh and ultra-fresh products with maximum product quality via a wide variety of distribution channels is undoubtedly the logistical pinnacle in the distribution centers of food retailers. It requires extensive know-how to develop the right holistic solution with the optimum degree of mechanization as a partner: Know-how about products and temperature ranges, specific characteristics of the different markets, suppliers, load carriers, product packing, and distribution channels - from the store to online retailing. In addition, we need to know all the processes in the internal and external supply chain.” Because automated consolidation and subsequent route-optimized provision for shipping is just as important as the actual storage and picking process.

Daniel Kick, Logistics Design, WITRON

Experience is crucial

If we look at fresh produce in detail, one of the challenges is the various classifications of the temperature ranges: Frozen goods, dairy products, meat and sausage products, fresh fish, or fruits and vegetables. However, these classifications, sometimes are even further detailed. “It is equally important to know whether fruits and vegetables are ethylene-releasing or ethylene-absorbing, the degree of humidity, and much more”, explains Kick. 

The frozen food sector, for example, is not too much of a challenge for the OPM stacking algorithm due to the mostly small range of products and the packaging used there. Rather, the mechanics in the frozen goods area must work highly reliable and the machine operator needs good accessibility to quickly reach all system components”, says Kick. In the dairy sector, WITRON serves discounters with only 500 products, but also retailers with more than 5,000 different goods.

France - logistics Champions League in fresh produce handling

The fresh produce sector in France in particular handles a very broad range of products. “The frequency of faults - despite the simplest packaging - is usually not the problem. It is important that IT and mechanics are precisely parameterized and that the stacking algorithm fits perfectly so that no yogurt crates are damaged, and the machine is not contaminated”, emphasizes the logistics expert.

“It’s a real challenge to handle fresh produce economically and efficiently in France. Up to 7,000 products - bagged goods, crates, or pallets, and much of it in the no-stock process, including receiving and separation of mixed pallets.” Daniel Kick and his colleagues have mastered this challenge. The FPM (Flow Picking Machinery) has been supporting them in this for several months. The system is similar to the OPM but does not require storage and its own pallet high bay warehouse. It uses COM technology to pick the goods buffered in the tray warehouse in a store-friendly manner. In France, the solution - first implemented for E. Leclerc in Castelnaudary - received the prestigious “Rois de la Supply Chain” logistics award and was described as a paradigm shift in automated fresh produce supply chain.

Daniel Kick is convinced that the new FPM solution will establish in France and the United Kingdom. “The market in Canada is also moving in a similar direction, with increasing requests for flow-through just-in-time solutions.”

Large Spanish food retailer relies on totes

In the fruit and vegetable sector, automation often has to face up to conventional systems when it comes to an economic comparison. The product range is manageable, and the order structure allows for high conventional picking output. “If the customer considers a solution independent of employee ergonomics, automation must be limited to the bare essentials to compete as a strong benchmark.”

WITRON customers use different automation strategies, which are also due to the national particularities in Spain. There, employees collect the fruits and vegetables directly into totes. “More than 95 percent of a Spanish food retailer’s fresh products are delivered to the distribution center in totes. We don’t need to follow a special stacking algorithm there. That’s why we rely on our BOS (Box Order System) and ATS (Automated Tote System) systems.” But it’s not quite as usual as that, because in the warehouse you have to think all the way to the store. “In the supermarket, employees not only want to store the totes in the right order, but they also want to handle heavy totes ergonomically.” Another challenge is the Spanish no-stock approach. “When 600 to 700 pallets arrive at the receiving area per hour and a short throughput time is required, it’s less of a mechanical issue for us, but more of an IT and material flow issue to be able to manage throughput.”

Automation has to pay off

"It’s a matter of determining the right level of automation for each task."

Daniel Kick, Logistics Design, WITRON

In Germany, fruit and vegetable logistics looks different than in southern regions. “The challenge is that stores have to be supplied in next to no time, because the merchant wants to have the fresh products in the supermarket in the morning. That means we need to have the goods ready for shipment by midnight, but the goods often don’t arrive at the distribution center until the afternoon. So, the time window per day is very limited”, says Kick. What is more, the automated system is often operated only five days a week, which means that automation is used in less than 50 percent of the possible operating time. In order to achieve maximum benefit here, automation focused on the 80 percent of standard totes. The remaining 20 percent of carton goods is picked conventionally but is fully integrated into the WITRON WMS and material flow. In countries with a higher ratio of cardboard boxes - such as Finland - the mechanics of the ATS (Automated Tote System), for example, can also be adapted in such way to allow automated stacking not only of totes, but also of carton goods and crates. “It’s a matter of determining the right level of automation for each task”, says Kick. 

North America - 24/7 system runtime

In contrast to Germany, most systems in North America run 24/7, which is good for automation, but the challenge there is quite different. “In the USA and Canada, we are dealing with cartons, boxes, and crates that are partially softened by the ice used for product cooling (wet produce).  This is quite challenging for the mechanics - but solvable. Standardization of packaging is not yet as advanced here as in Europe. That’s why many customers rely on the OPM, which can flexibly handle a wide variety of packaging.”

Daniel Kick explains in the podcast interview how food retailers worldwide can organize their fresh produce handling together with WITRON and learn from each other in the process.