Fast Forward To Today

The grocery distribution center of the future has arrived—Sobey Inc.’s new automated facility in Canada. At the heart of the DC is a case picking system that can handle 320,000 cases per day.


The company tackled technology first and implemented SAP in 2005, which required it to address the data quality issues in its legacy systems. Vimard points out that an ERP system is not necessary to automate a warehouse, “but it does help to have a strong foundation in place and the quality of the information we had with SAP certainly helped with the implementation. The quality of the data is critical—the better the data, the better the system will run.”

Sobeys decided to see what solutions were available and, with the help of an outside consultant, developed an internal roadmap in about six months. After a visit to a Kroger DC in Phoenix that was designed by Witron Integrated Logistics, Arlington Heights, IL, the company realized it had found its automation partner.

“We liked what we saw in Phoenix,” says Vimard, “and Kroger’s business was similar to ours. We sat down with Witron and made sure that we were talking the same language. We discussed how we’d cover peak periods, how we’d handle a challenging time in the day when we have a special promotion—all of those things that differentiate one retailer from another.”

The automation process begins as products are received at the DC and checked in to inventory. From this point, the automation takes over as products are stored in a pallet AS/RS. That automated pallet storage system replenishes a miniload AS/RS case buffer that feeds automatic pallet-building machines. Each store’s order is assembled case by case, the optimal sequence according to the actual physical design layout of that particular store, facilitating faster and more efficient shelf stocking.

Vimard says that near perfect order accuracy practically eliminates out-of-stocks, so Sobeys can provide its customers with the selection of products they’re looking for. In addition, bringing more DSD volume in-house means fewer trucks at the back doors waiting to be unloaded. “So we have more store staff available to help our customers,” he says. “And since the pallets are automatically built according to each individual store layout—basically one aisle per pallet—we’ve reduced labor at the store as well as product damage.”

The automation includes 11 AS/RS pallet cranes that service 38,000 locations and 32 AS/RS miniload cranes with access to 340,000 tray locations. As the systems integrator, Witron manages all processes below the SAP level with its own information technology, material flow and control applications.

COM: The Show Stopper

The majority of case picking is completely automated through the use of Witron’s proprietary OPM (order picking machinery) picking system. Pallets are automatically assembled through Witron’s 16 COM (case order machines) that are installed in the warehouse. The COM is fed by the tray AS/RS system. In addition, a three-aisle “pick to pallet” system with voice control and automated replenishment supplements the automated system in order to handle peak volumes as well as bulky goods.

The COM is the crucial element of the picking system. Typically, automated case picking systems use a vacuum and grab process, which limits the types and sizes of cases that can be lifted and put on the pallet. In addition, this process leaves space between the cases. The COM is very different. It allows cases to be automatically stacked on top of pallets in a store-friendly sequence, without any gaps around the cases. The system can pick cases consisting of different package types, sizes, volumes and weight—up to 95 percent of the typical retail assortment.

The OPM’s replenishment algorithms use forecasting and historical data to ensure the miniload case buffer has the product needed to fulfill the next two to three days of store orders.

The COM was the deal maker for Sobeys. “When we saw the COM at work in the Kroger DC in Phoenix, we were flabbergasted,” says Vimard. “Our picking operation was very costly, it had the most employees, the most breakage and the most challenges in terms of building a pallet, and here the COM was doing it automatically. Witron had cracked the code. At that point, we just had to figure out if it was sustainable over the long term. We visited other distribution centers that were using the COM, and decided that it was worth the investment.”

Witron says the OPM and COM have drawn the attention of major supermarket retailers throughout the world. Kroger has installed the system at three of its distribution centers; a fourth is in the works. Witron expects more retailers to follow suit.

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