Global success factor: fully automated case picking

Witron has grown since its inception in 1971 to become one of the world’s leading providers for the design and realisation of automated, integrated logistics solutions.

Its core competence hereby lies on highly dynamic, efficient order picking technology. The company’s headquarters is located in Parkstein in Germany, with subsidiaries situated in the Netherlands, UK, Spain and USA. Witron deals with companies operating in the food retail and distribution, pharmaceutical, automotive, electrical as well as manufacturing industries.

Having joined the company initially as a project engineer in 1994, Jack Kuypers has risen to become branch manager of North-west Europe, covering the Benelux-states, UK, Ireland and Scandinavia. He outlines the growth of business throughout its 37-year history: “Initially, Witron acted as a sub-contractor delivering controls to large customers and suppliers. But we soon found out that we could do a better job when taking a lead in the whole process. We now act as a full circle provider of complete logistics projects, starting from data-analysis and design, through to the turnkey realisation of the plans as general contractor, as well as after-sales services. Having done it for a long time, a lot of experience is gained in every discipline and fed back to the other disciplines. Thus it enables us to take functional responsibility for the projects we realise, which is a huge advantage for our customers of which we are very proud of.

“Since the very beginning, one of the companies main principles was to find the optimum solution for our customer,” Jack says. “Only if our customers are successful in terms of technical and economical targets, are we successful; even if this means thinking out of the box. And that is what Witron is known for: being very innovative and ahead of the rest when thinking in concepts, yet still relying on proven technology and equipment.

“Over the last seven to eight years, business in food retail has grown significantly for Witron,” Jack outlines, “and this is where the ideas were initiated to design a fully automated case order-picking system that meets the demands of that business. The result of that, the Order Picking Machinery (OPM) concept, can handle over 90 per cent of the complete product spectrum. The OPM-solution meanwhile has been applied to the dry goods, fresh food, and frozen environments – no other company has attempted or achieved a successful application of its technology to handle the whole product spectrum in all of these areas.

“We came up with the first ideas of this new fully automated case picking concept approximately five to six years ago,” Jack states. “One of the customer demands, difficult to achieve within the traditional handling of case picked goods, is maintaining high levels of efficiency while extending product ranges and handled volumes. As we’ve developed, we have seen challenges concerning labour and land. These are key drivers in the viability of a client’s project, because land and labour will always be needed.” Concerning labour the challenges are:

  • Labour costs increase
  • Availability of labour
  • High ergonomic demand for future generations

“Furthermore, when focusing on increasing pick-performances one shouldn’t forget that a positive effect of increased pick-performances to the operation, could be followed by negative effects related to health, because although one has found an improved way of operation, this also means that the employee still needs to handle more goods and associated weights. As for the other challenge, we also see a significant increment of land costs in the countries in which we operate.”

An automated picking solution requires the use of less (manual) labour, and takes up less space, but a new set of challenges have emerged. Jack adds: “For instance, not all packaging has the same shape and quality, so we needed to develop a solution that incorporated this knowledge. Witron found that the most stable side of packaging, which in general looks the same for every article, is the bottom-side. So we focused on carrying and pushing products along their bottom surface. This was a significant breakthrough, and created a unified method of handling packaging.”

Furthermore, what’s more important when moving into an automated situation is the stability of the whole process or in other words, the availability of the kit. Jack elaborates on the process: “We designed a fixed load-carrying unit tray on which single cartons are placed and on which the products are carried throughout the whole installation. By doing so, we were able to handle a wide variety of products all of different shape, dimensions and quality. Only during the last two metres of our picking and stacking process we physically touch the packaging. Hence still sticking to the principles of carrying or pushing products along their bottom surface: when lifting from the tray, sliding it into place using special telescopic forks, and placing it exactly in position on a precalculated rollcage or pallet.”

He continues: “When the orders are received and run through the sophisticated application software, the OPM-system will make sure that the pallets are loaded quickly and efficiently in a store-friendly way. The implemented software strategies ensure that retail items are grouped together according to the given shelf configuration per individual store (planogram). The strategies also take into account other rules that may be defined like to not stack heavy products on light products. Since the software calculates a pallet or rollcage way in advance of the actual stacking itself, optimum pallet or rollcage loads can be built. We have found that using our automated stacking system as opposed to hand packed pallets results in a ten to 15 per cent decrease in needed transport volume.”

This technological development has been highly successful for the company, as Jack explains: “Over the last four years, we have completed ten of these material handling projects, featuring the use of more then 200 case stacking machines. In 2005, we won a German industrial engineering award for this innovation in case stacking solutions. In our design portfolio, we have another 235 casestacking machines on order, which is indicative for the success of the concept.”

The success of the more than 2000 automated logistic systems the company has already completed can be attributed to the ethos that runs throughout the organisation, as Jack describes: “Witron is a very reliable, down-to-earth company, and what we promise to deliver, we will achieve. We are extremely dedicated; the focus is on completing projects in a professional, efficient manner whereby the customer and his success are the key drivers for us. The result of is evident as more than 60 per cent of our turnover comes from repeat business. We are looking for long-term partnerships with our customers. With a US customer for instance we are currently realising the fifth consecutive project.”

He concludes: “Our experience within the industry, and the fact that we develop and deliver everything in-house, means that we are generally well respected. Although being at the leading edge, Witron continuously strives to improve and make its processes better. This ethos has always been and still is underpinned by the drive of Witron’s founder, who has a very strong desire for success and hard work.”


Products: OPM solution
Sites: Across Western Europe and North America
Employees: 1000 globally