The food industry is facing many challenges, especially in the manufacturing and distribution segments. Rising costs, changing consumer habits, stock keeping unit (SKU) proliferation and environmental pressures are driving manufacturers to implement new processes simply to keep up.
Changes in society and dietary preferences are transforming the global market for food. With rising incomes and busier lifestyles, consumers demand more meat products, on top of convenient, easy-to-prepare and exotic foods. Further, the growing businesses within the food industry are also changing the way of warehouse operations due to increasing demands for temperature-controlled foods.
To cope with these trends, temperature-controlled food warehouses are a vital link in the cold chain which requires high quality at every point. There is a rising need for additional capacities, maximum uptimes, and faster, more efficient receiving and shipping across a broader range of SKUs.
This was especially so for the apetito group, a familyowned company specialising in frozen ready-made meals. With a 35-year-old deep-freeze warehouse that proved incapable of coping with the capacity required at peak times, they needed a new intralogistics system, and had one built for them and for their required purposes by Swisslog in 2013.
Engineered and implemented by Swisslog, the logistics and distribution centre is designed using efficient, state-of-the-art technology in terms of functionality as well as dynamics, scalability and environmental friendliness. apetito’s new logistics centre meets the company‘s current capacity requirements and can be expanded at any time.
The centrepiece of the new logistics and distribution centre is an automated carton warehouse with a connected order picking area. In addition, the distribution centre has technology and employee rooms as well as a visitor area. apetito invested 22.5 million euros (US$27.3 million) in the logistics centre—the largest single investment in company history. Fifty percent of this amount was invested in construction and technology, respectively. The two-year planning phase was used to develop, test and simulate more than ten different models. Ultimately, the company decided on the concept that was implemented.
Automated Carton Warehouse
The typical challenges of running a warehouse are magnified in the deep-freeze environment. Not only are the conditions hard on staff; standard distribution equipment would not be able to cope with the conditions as well. Therefore, automation is an ideal solution and it would also ensure speed, accuracy reduced risk and complexity with order fulfilment and inventory control, on top of offering greater food traceability for security and efficiency.
On a footprint of 1,085 sq m, the facility for apetito houses a 35m x 31m x 21m high-density automated small-parts warehouse with 77,500 storage locations. Maintained at a temperature of -24 deg C, the warehouse is used to store food packed in boxes. The average storage period is 1.5 days.
The deep-freeze warehouse includes 18 aisles of racking on two levels with 18 stacker cranes. Their acceleration is approximately 22 km per hour in less than two seconds, which matches the performance of many sports cars. This results in an average of 170 in- and outfeeds per hour.
Order-Picking And Shipping Area
The automated carton warehouse interacts with a 2,192 sq m picking and shipping area, both of which are maintained at identical temperatures. A total of 1.5 km of roller conveyors, driven by 530 motors, is used to provision products for putaway and to retrieve orders. Replenishment boxes are initially provided in the form of pallets. These are separated using two fully automated depalletisers and then fed to the system.
“The special feature of the box handling process in the new logistics centre is that the system operates without the help of bins or trays. The cartons travel directly on the conveyor and are put away and retrieved like that in the automated smallparts warehouse,” explains Dr Volker Jungbluth, Managing Director of Swisslog GmbH.
Optimised Packing Process
The shipping area of the new apetito logistics centre has eight packing stations with a guaranteed output of 3,050 boxes per hour. Thanks to sophisticated 100 percent sequencing performed by a reshuffler, the sequence of the boxes presented to each picker matches the exact sequence of the orders to be processed.
Pickers do not need to sort the products by hand or store them temporarily at their workstation. Instead, they can transfer the incoming boxes directly to the transport units, for example pallets. This ensures that order processing is very time-efficient and virtually error-free.
To further assist the pickers, all packing stations are ergonomically optimised based on the latest scientific findings. Every load carrier can be adjusted to meet different packing height requirements. Thanks to this holistic implementation, the new distribution centre is able to handle up to 730 load carriers per day in two shifts. This roughly matches the deliveries to 1,000 clients during the same period.
Warehouse Management & Material Flow Control
The warehouse management system was also provided by Swisslog and controls all processes in the logistics centre. Using an interface to apetito’s proprietary system applications products (SAP) system, it receives the required data and confirms orders as they are completed.
One highlight of the system is a comprehensive load carrier calculation that uses a wide range of criteria to ensure the packing stations are being used optimally. In addition, the warehouse management system implements strategies for maintaining the exact box sequence on the load carriers.
The entire material flow is managed by a seamless and reliable control system that differs in one main aspect from conventional material flow control processes: apetito’s logistics solution uses a ‘logical’ tracking process. This innovative approach involves system-controlled tracking of the path of each box, without the use of external media such as barcodes or radio frequency identification (RFID) technology.
Sustainability is a must for new construction. When building its new logistics and distribution centre, apetito focused not only on profitability, flexibility and optimal working conditions but also placed high priority on environmental friendliness and energy efficiency.
For example, the 18 stacker cranes of the automated carton warehouse are equipped with regenerative braking technology. The main drives of the depalletisers operate similarly using energy recovery. In addition, the frost-protection heaters and the heating system for all employee areas use heat recovery from the cooling systems.
The permanent lighting for the main picking areas is provided by long-life light-emitting diode (LED) technology that generates no heat. Temporary lighting is controlled by motion sensors. To minimise energy-intensive loss of cold air, the loading docks for trucks are designed with DBO (docking before opening) technology. Also, the fire safety system in the warehouse is resource-friendly. Instead of sprinklers, it uses an inerting system. A concentration of 15 percent oxygen by volume prevents the outbreak of fires.