World premiere Flow Picking Machinery: “Just-in-time” logistics for fresh and ultra-fresh products


26.09.2022 - 6 minutes reading time
Almost twenty years ago, WITRON presented the first OPM solution. Now, the Parkstein-based company is continuing its success story: The fully automated Flow Picking Machinery (FPM) uses OPM technology but works without stock and builds store-friendly pallets just-in-time for customers. The system received the prestigious French “Rois de la Supply Chain” logistics award and was described as a paradigm shift in the supply chain of automated fresh produce logistics. FPM thus delivers significant customer benefits with regard to skilled labor shortage (ergonomic work processes), store service (high product quality), as well as sustainability (less surplus stock, less waste, optimum truck utilization, and CO2 reduction due to densely packed store pallets).

“With the FPM, we have developed a highly efficient system for fully automated picking in no-stock distribution centers - based on a real 'business case' of a food retailer – full end-to-end integration from receiving to shipping. The FPM concept is thus the perfect solution for 'flow through' fresh produce logistics when it is handled almost exclusively via a no-stock distribution platform and at the same time places very high demands on product variety, product quality, and time-to-store”, explains Claus Holm, responsible for the Southwest Europe sales region at WITRON.

“A 'flow-through warehouse' turns over completely several times a day”, according to WITRON’s authorized officer. “The products of the various product groups are delivered throughout the day and received in the incoming goods area of the FPM system. Once depalletizing has been completed, the goods enter a highly dynamic sequence buffer. The intelligent production control of the FPM system dynamically calculates the pallets required for the ongoing production, considering the optimization of production capacity, stacking criteria, and transport volumes. Palletizing is done in a store-friendly manner using the COM machines according to the individual requirements of each store. Finally, a fully automated shipping buffer provides all store pallets in the shipping area in the correct order for the tour and shipment - exactly at the right loading time and in the right loading sequence.”

Pilot project in France

Holm and his team have implemented the first FPM system in the fresh produce logistics of retailer E. Leclerc SOCAMIL in France. In the French trade media, the industry is celebrating the solution for its flexibility, cost-efficiency, and sustainability.

“In a classic OPM system, the customer has a high bay warehouse with a stock level of several days. From here, the goods are transferred to the picking warehouse with another one or two days of stock. The palletization with COM machines is supplied from there and is thus decoupled in terms of time from the receiving process and the delivery by the suppliers. This allows the OPM essentially to calculate and optimize production and pallets in advance.”

Claus Holm, Authorized signatory responsible for the sales region Southwest Europe, WITRON

“The FPM has to adopt a different strategy here. Due to the just-in-time situation in the fresh produce area, there is no stock in the FPM except the three- to six-hour buffer capacity in the receiving area and the sequence buffer in front of the COM machines. ”It is decisive that the goods are delivered by the suppliers and received in the system in accordance with the production schedule, which is organized in waves of product groups. The FPM then calculates the pallets dynamically during ongoing operation.

“We know what has been ordered, what is already available, and what is still to come. The system then decides independently when to start with the picking process”, explains Holm. The reference project in the south of France operates ten COM machines, which build more than 2,000 pallets a day. Almost 100 percent of the entire fresh produce volume with more than 12,000 items is picked fully automatically. “A FPM module can consist of 12 - 16 COM machines, but it is possible to add additional modules for higher volumes, because product families can be produced in parallel in different FPM modules. The receiving and particularly the shipping area remain the same for all FPM modules in a system, so that the store pallets from the different production modules are consolidated for one truck route.

Intelligent production plan for store pallets

“The idea to develop the FPM derived from a customer request. We already had several OPM systems running in the dry goods area at various E. Leclerc regional companies, and then the customer asked if we could also automate their fresh produce sector. We told our customer that we are of course able to do that, but the customer warned us that it could be more difficult in their case due to the high dynamics, the number of products, and the quantity of mixed pallets in the receiving area. Then the work really started”, Holm jokingly admits.

The WITRON colleagues analyzed the items, pallets, and the material flow. The truck arrives at the logistics center, the pallet is unloaded, received, and from this point, the FPM system takes over the control. It requests the necessary pallets according to the production plan. The system releases the pallets from the receiving buffer, they are ideally depalletized automatically, and the separated packages are merged onto trays. A scanner identifies each item so that the system knows which product is on the tray, even in case of mixed pallets. The goods then enter the pallet production, which is the highly dynamic picking process. The aisles are dynamically assigned to stores. The FPM then collects from the sequencer aisles the collies for production.

“The real challenge is the management of the receiving process, because in the past it was enough if the goods were in the warehouse. But today, the arrival time is a decisive criterion for the overall process when it comes to just-in-time fresh produce handling. The truck driver must arrive at the defined time slot”, emphasizes Holm. The retailer communicates the production plan for the whole week to the suppliers. This strongly reminds of processes in the automotive industry. “Yes, that’s true, but it is a little more complicated. In the automotive industry, many critical suppliers are located around the manufacturing plant to comply with the defined time slots. That is not the case with our suppliers. Here, some of the goods come directly from the field”, explains Holm with a laugh.

Fluid logistics processes

If the truck is stuck in traffic, the FPM system decides how to proceed based on fluid logistics processes. It analyses the stock, the outstanding product quantity, and then informs the operator. “We then make suggestions - such as building a rest pallet or processing a different product family for the time being”, knows Holm. Another key factor in the system’s efficiency is the structure of the inbound pallets. “In our case, 45 percent were full pallets or single-item layer pallets, which we can depalletize very well automatically. In addition, there are uniform case pallets. These are pallets each with one type of standard carton boxes or totes that have different items in it. These can also be depalletized automatically. This already gives us an automatic depalletizing rate of almost 65 percent without making any major adjustments. But the goal is more than 80 percent”, says Holm. How can this be achieved?

"That is a win-win outcome for the retailer and the supplier, as it significantly simplifies the supplier’s logistics processes."

Claus Holm, Authorized signatory responsible for the sales region Southwest Europe, WITRON

The WITRON logistics experts have defined strategies with the customer to increase the ratio of uniform case pallets in cooperation with the suppliers, and, at the same time, to re-order in the future from the supplier in complete layer units when it comes to fast-moving items. “That is a win-win outcome for the retailer and the supplier, as it significantly simplifies the supplier’s logistics processes. But the customer often first has to talk to the partners in the supply chain and the changes can often only be implemented during the ramp-up. As a result, the degree of automatic depalletizing is usually lower at the start of the ramp-up, but then increases steadily as the receiving process is optimized. The FPM perfectly supports this transition process. Our system adapts flexibly to the degree of automatic depalletizing, as the depalletizing stations can be operated both automatically and as manual workstations”, adds Holm.

FPM can change fresh produce logistics worldwide

The FPM will change fresh produce logistics not only in France, the Bavarian based company is convinced. “And it comes at the right time”, says Holm, because there is a lack of employees in the fresh logistics centers. The time pressure and physical demands there are high, and customers can save a lot of money.


The market launch in France was no coincidence. “We have here more than five times the number of items in the fresh food sector than in other countries, far more ultra-fresh items  with very short best-before dates, and much more demanding customer expectations in terms of variety, selection, and quality than for example in German”, summarizes Holm. He can well imagine the use of FPM in other countries as well. “Given the fact that we have successfully mastered the complex task in France, we can manage the requirements in other markets just as successfully with the FPM.”