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Gold stars for brownfield project

30 October 2023

A retailer undertook a major reshape of its automated warehouse operations - a massive challenge - made even more so because it occurred during the pandemic.

EXPANDING A highly dynamic multi-temperature logistics centre for roughly 1,200 stores during ongoing operations with an increase in pick performance from 480,000 to almost 625,000 cases daily, is a tremendous challenge.

But when store and online orders continue to soar due to various lockdowns and teams have to work within Covid-19 restrictions, then a lot more than technical and organisational knowledge is needed on both sides for the project to succeed. Witron and the food retailer COOP from Norway both demonstrated this.

When the two managing directors Geir Inge Stokke (COOP) and Helmut Prieschenk (Witron) signed the contract for the expansion of the COOP multi-temperature distribution centre near Oslo at the end of May 2019, neither of them had any idea of the huge challenges they would have to face due to lockdowns. For a long time, the project team was only allowed to drive from the hotel (which was not allowed to be left for other reasons) to the logistics centre and back. The cafeterias on site were also closed. Even in the hotel, the service was reduced to a minimum. This is something the firms had to overcome as a team.

The task was to expand the dry, fresh, and frozen goods logistics facility from 52,000 sq m to 84,000 sq m, to increase throughput by 30%, to integrate new COM machines, to install additional pallet and tray AS/RS aisles and various conveyor components, to increase the size of the fully automated shipping buffer, to update the corresponding WMS system to the latest technology, and to implement all of this into the existing material flow during ongoing operations without any loss of performance. 

The expansion was also necessary because the retailer acquired a competitor and therefore grew stronger and faster than assumed when the original logistics centre was established with Witron’s help. 

In spring 2023, 42 COM machines (eleven new COMs were installed) were operating across all temperature zones and COOP’s logistics systems can pick more than 625,000 cases daily. In total, the facility comprises more than 600,000 pallet, tote, and tray storage locations as well as 130 stacker cranes, and many kilometres of conveyor technology. 

Temperature zones

From the facility (with five different temperature zones), COOP supplies 1,200 stores located across Norway, from the metropolis region around Oslo and the far North of Norway from an assortment of 13,000 different items.

The frozen food logistics sector was a particular technical challenge. Witron’s Holger Weiss says: “We ‘heated’ the existing automated area from -25 deg C to -5 deg C, and COOP temporarily moved the goods to a conventional storage area for picking. Within eight weeks, we then made all the adjustments in the area of electrical assembly, platforms, pallet and tray conveyor technology until the existing freezer was ramped up again. The two new COM machines, as well as two more pallet storage aisles, four tray storage aisles, additional stacker cranes, a depalletiser, and the corresponding conveyor system were then installed in the new freezer building.”

The installation sequence was carefully planned in a joint process, with installation of the new pallet cranes prioritised, which would facilitate efficient CPS picking in the extended frozen area. Once the new production (picking) zone was at the required temperature, the automated production moved to CPS picking from the new pallet cranes and manual pallet racks.

Gaute Glomlien from COOP adds: “The phase required careful coordination and cross-functional collaboration between Witron’s IT and mechanical resources, and COOP’s teams controlling production, transport and order management, from commissioning through ramp-up and during the productive phase.

“After Witron had completed the new installations in our pre-existing production zone, the process was reversed for completion of the new production area. Picking was then moved back to the fully automated OPM machinery.”

Today, a total of four COM machines are working in the frozen goods area of the facility. 

When the system was cooled down again to minus 25 °C. Weiss explains: “If the cables break, the belts tear, motors quit, or sensors fail, it’s going to be exciting because the available time window was tight and at the same time it was important to keep in mind the quality of the stored goods to avoid major product damages. You have to use the best components available on the market for a project like this. We did not change existing drives, but we installed new ones. It has to run right from the start, because otherwise the project won’t be completed on time, or the customer will even have direct costs if goods cannot be shipped.” 

The Witron OnSite team used the time of the rebuild to perform maintenance on the system. “When the goods are stored again, you must always constantly communicate with the control room and react quickly on site”, explains Weiß. Communication between the customer team, the project team, and the OnSite team must work smoothly. “The result undoubtedly documents that it worked smoothly”, emphasises the Witron project manager. “The meticulously detail work paid off. After we had ramped up the frozen goods area, we were able to quickly return to performance. There were no negative surprises.”

Other zones

Following detailed discussions with Witron, COOP decided to install five additional COM machines (a total of 17 with space for 4 more COMs), another four pallet storage aisles, ten more tray storage aisles, the corresponding stacker cranes and conveyor system mechanics, three depalletisers, as well as one stretch-wrapper in the OPM area of the dry goods range. “A crucial phase had come for the dry goods range in the fall of 2021 and winter of 2022”, says Glomlien. “This is the area with the highest throughput in the distribution centre, with added complexity with two physically separate OPM sub-systems working as one integrated unit. In order to continue supplying all orders on time with the same quality after start of use of the new area, the ramp-up process was planned carefully, and our stock distribution was monitored closely to ensure the right products were in position for picking at the right time.”

The fresh food area received four additional COM machines (in total 21 with space for five more COMs), another eight tray storage aisles, two more pallet storage aisles, the corresponding stacker cranes and conveyor system mechanics, two depalletisers, and one stretch-wrapper. “We then added another material flow section for vegetables and fruits in the fresh produce area to simplify the handling of other goods in this sector. In the past, the product groups were picked together”, explains Glomlien.  

The fully automated shipping buffer, which covers various temperature zones, has been expanded once again. 

Even after the project has been completed, the processes in the logistics centre keep changing, if only because the entire supply chain is subject to fluctuations and customer requirements change. That is why a high level of flexibility is required in all processes. “COOP is pursuing a continuous improvement process and has gained a lot of experience with the facility over the past few years. This is also very impressive for us. They analyse their data, their calculations, select the right picking strategies for the regions and stores, and define how to structure their orders”, says Weiss.

For more information, visit www.witron.com