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.


Food Logistics recently spoke with Karl Hoegen, Witron’s CEO North America.

What is Witron’s “down to earth” culture all about?

Hoegan: Witron is a family owned company that was founded in 1971. We adhere to our values of integrity, commitment and partnership. We are responsible-minded, competent, reliable and predictable, and we possess a very strong work ethic. Our “down-to-earth” culture gives us long-lasting relationships with our customers, illustrated by the fact that nearly 80 percent of our business is repeat.

What are the key distribution and logistics challenges that today’s food retailers are facing, and how does Witron help them overcome these challenges?

Hoegan: We see two key ergonomic drivers: legislation and an aging workforce. Some European countries are placing limits on the amount of weight an order selector can lift during a shift. In some distribution operations, we see pickers lifting 16,000 to 20,000 lbs. per shift, resulting in increased potential for injury, higher error rates, more case damage, and greater employee turnover.

Some companies are having difficulties finding people willing to work in a warehouse. Ten to 15 years from now, over 23 percent of the U.S. population will be 60 years of age or older. The pool of potential employees continues to shrink. As a result, we need to focus on improving the work environment through automation.

Seven years ago, Witron developed an automated case picking and palletizing system we call OPM (Order Picking Machinery). The OPM can automatically pick and palletize over 17,000 different SKUs in a store-friendly sequence. This automatic pallet building means 100 percent picking accuracy, less case damage and quicker shelf replenishment, ultimately leading to increased customer satisfaction in the retail store.

Witron is well-known for its innovative material handling solutions, such as the COM (case order machine). What drives this innovation?

Hoegan: Our deep partnerships with customers allow us to collaborate on technology and solutions that can give companies a competitive advantage in their market. Kroger was the company that challenged us to come up with the COM solution. As a result of that success, our COM equipment processes 2.5 million cases creating approximately 35,000 order pallets each day worldwide. We continue to focus on the “3-E’s” when designing our solutions—ergonomics, efficiency and economics.

What are some of the most recent innovations that Witron has developed?

Hoegan: The ETP (ergonomic tray picking) system was recently introduced to the market place as an “intermediate level” of automation. Although picking is still manual, pick front replenishment is completely automated. In addition, the transport of the picker to the pick location is system-guided, with the picker riding on a man-aboard crane. The height of the order pallet or roll container carried by the man-aboard crane is automatically adjusted relative to the height of the goods in the pick slot, so the picker never needs to lift during picking.

The system calculates the pick sequence and indicates the pick-to location on the order pallet or roll container such that stability, density, and store friendliness can be maximized. No bending, stooping, lifting or carrying by the order selector yields pick rates of up to 500 cases per hour. Having a taller, more densely packed order pallet yields transportation savings of eight to 12 percent as reported by some of our customers. With fuel rates continuing to increase, transportation savings is a big focus for companies.

How do Witron’s solutions help customers become more energy efficient?

Hoegan: Witron’s focus on space-efficient designs enables a significant reduction in energy (lighting and HVAC) compared to conventional designs. In fact, a typical Witron-designed DC has half the footprint of a conventional DC sized to handle the same volume. Energy savings are particularly important when considering frozen and temperature-controlled environments.

Energy efficient planning is not just for new facilities. This issue also plays an important role in the refurbishment of older facilities and maintenance of the “installed base.” Witron regularly conducts energy audits on its existing installations and suggests changes that can be made to reduce waste.

How do you differentiate yourself from your competitors?

Hoegan: As a general contractor, Witron is responsible for the budget, schedule and activities throughout all phases of a project: from conception and planning, to installation, and on through the ramp-up phase. Even after the project has been completed, Witron offers a lifetime of customer support. Our clients love having one point of contact for their project. Being privately owned, we believe we are more innovative and nimble with our leading edge solutions. For example, in Europe, our customers are building ¼ size and ½ size pallets for end caps and display picking using the OPM system. We designed the OPM and HBW (high bay warehouse) with the ability to build and handle these types of pallets giving the customer more flexibility from the distribution center to the store floor.

What direction do you see the food industry going in terms of warehouse automation?

Hoegan: We see automation and ergonomic solutions becoming more prominent in the food industry because of the pressures to gain competitive advantage and improve employee retention. Companies see the need to lower their handling costs while simultaneously improving the working environment.

What does the future hold for Witron?
Hoegan: Our customers are starting to “pull us along” into other areas of their operation such as automatic shelf replenishment in their retail stores. We are testing technology that can be used inside the store to automatically replenish and front a store shelf. This will help provide the customer with a better shopping experience marked by clean aisles and shelves always stocked with product available for purchase. We will continue to be an innovator of ergonomic, efficient and cost effective logistics solutions that give our customers an advantage in their market.


Throughout its entire organization, Sobeys Inc. is committed to environmental sustainability—and the Vaughan distribution center is no exception. The construction and design of the DC incorporated many “green” features including a building automation system (BAS) which keeps the building climate within a specified range, provides lighting based on occupancy schedule and monitors system performance and failures. The BAS helps reduce building energy and maintenance costs.

Other environmentally friendly features include:

  • Recycled iron and steel slag in the concrete;
  • A white or “cool” roof made of recyclable materials to reduce heat transfer into the building and reduce electrical heating demand;
  • Fast-charge battery charging units that use less energy than conventional battery charging equipment;
  • Water conservation features including electronic water faucets; and
  • Self-cleaning windows that provide natural light, reducing the facility’s need for artificial lighting.

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