We innovate with smart distribution centres

We innovate with industrial automations on logistic sites. In our new distribution centres in Londerzeel and Liège, for example, we are working with automations and robots

Robot technology for the future

From the fall, our new smart Collect&Go distribution centre in Londerzeel will be operational. Half the 18,000 m² surface is now reserved for trying out new robot technology. Dieter Hofmans: "We automate especially where co-workers have highly repetitive tasks, must lift heavy articles or work in trying circumstances. We want to be the first to fathom a technology and be ready for future challenges. We are learning a lot from machine suppliers, but we do take care of the design."

Since September 2021, a 5,500 m² large e-warehouse in Liège takes care of the distribution for Newpharma. We are examining how we can optimise our way of working with sensors and data. "It is all about anticipating the market smarter and faster and taking actions to serve the customer even better."

Automation or not?

In 2014, we automated the frozen products department in our distribution centre in Halle. First we wanted to improve ergonomics. Co-workers used to have to pick products at -27 °C. Since the automation, the products move to a deep-cooled area by means of the shuttle warehouse to the order picker, who now works in a more pleasant 3 °C area. "The intervention provided a better and more sustainable cooling," says Hofmans.

"However, this required a very substantial investment. You have to guess volumes, which are uncertain, years in advance. You need concepts eliminating this uncertainty." In other words, technology that can scale. We are not looking for 'automation giants', but rather for automating each individual process. "This approach is more flexible and does not require gigantic infrastructure investments to enlarge or reduce. With this new technology, you can start small-scale, test, learn and then develop what turns out to be useful."

Experimenting in Londerzeel

We made the smart distribution centre in Londerzeel operational at the end of August. Jannis Huybrechts: "We are experimenting with new technology that reduces the order cost (cost to gather the products of an order for a customer)." A year and a half ago, we invested in the French Scallog. Their mobile robots pick up product units and bring them to the co-worker. Goods to Man as they call it. "In the distribution centre of Erpe Mere, another solution was tested with 6 robots to support the co-workers of the refrigerated fresh products department."

"We are also considering deploying some 20 'follow me' order pickers at the beginning of 2022. They can also be scaled up easily." We already tested a handful of mobile robots and the 'follow me' technology in an empty DC. "We have done elaborate testing. Scallog is part of Colruyt Group. The risk is smaller then. We decided there was a real business case there. But to do a realistic test, you need volume."

Implementing technical innovations efficiently

"We are establishing the link between our processes and the new solutions," project engineer Stefan Roelans confirms. Innovations have to fit in with the process work as efficiently as possible and be integrated at software level as well. "Sometimes, we will adjust processes. That always results in expenses, the advantages of which only become clear in the longer term. In short, it must be profitable."

Sometimes, a lack of people forces us to automate, "but that is certainly not always the right choice. When a thorough preliminary study shows that automation is not profitable, you have to dare to decide not to go through with it. Many factors can play a part: the range, the quantities, the environment, etc. "When you automate, it is always a challenge to work with our internal partner to find the concept that fits in best with a specific application. You can see this is about eight major automations we already have up and running; they are all totally different installations."

Combining solutions in Liège

We are building a new warehouse for Newpharma near Liège. The company has developed considerably and the current procedure no longer worked. Many processes were manual. A further growth in volume or assortment meant a linear growth in manpower and surface... "Covid showed us the limits. Before the pandemic, the need for scaleable solutions was not completely clear yet. Covid accelerated this insight," says Hofmans.

"A pilot with 20 robots and 250 storage units should prove the business case we caculated," Hofmans explains. To scale up in combination with other automations. "Newpharma has a very varied product range. Apart from small pharmaceutical packages, they also offer large packages of animal feed. Consequently, we could not choose automations requiring uniformity in packaging. Moreover, we want to consolidate orders completely to one delivery.

The solution will be a combination of conveying, traditional picking and self-driving vehicles. The engineers calculate and dimension everything in advance. Larger installations are simulated. "Our suppliers build them digitally and we send them virtual orders and peak orders. Focusing on sales teaches us a lot about logistic parameters. Automation is one aspect. We try to bring all aspects together and to optimise them."