Peeling Off The Layers

Automated layer picking systems offer substantial cost savings and productivity improvements.


Kuehne+Nagel's distribution center in Veghel, the Netherlands, one of the largest dry food warehouses in Europe, was experiencing growing pains. The third-party logistics provider was manually handling more than 30 million cases of product a year for its two largest customers—Unilever and Masterfoods.

These customers were calling for cases of goods, rather than full pallet quantities, to be palletized and shipped to customer, DC and retail locations. Assembling mixed pallets, however, is labor intensive, time consuming and costly. It was a tough job for the 20 or so K+N workers who picked an average of 250 cases per hour.

Tim Beckmann, Veghel's site manager, wanted to automate the process, but knew he was taking a gamble. "You don't see much innovation in distribution centers," says Beckmann. "Automation is risky for small-margin warehouses—especially since we are dealing with short-term contracts. We already had high throughput in our facility and didn't want to jeopardize that.

But 50 percent of our outgoing volume for Unilever was in cases that could be delivered in whole layers, so we thought we would investigate the market and see what options were available."

K+N faced a number of challenges. About 800 to 900 of daily outgoing pallets to customers would be picked as mixed pallets in whole layers, from source pallets to customer pallets.

"We had to figure out how to automate the task of picking diverse products directly from source pallets and transferring them to customer pallets, which could be done through layer picking. But how would we handle different packaging types, shapes and stacking patterns, since these are often changing?" says Beckmann.

In addition, when retailers ordered cases, they didn't necessarily order in "layer" quantities.

"Our customers may order 30 cases of an item, not knowing that 38 would be a full layer," he says. "Yet, we knew for layer picking to be an efficient process, we would have to get them to order full layer quantities. This would require a lot of attention because suppliers often introduce new packaging materials, so the number of cases per layer or pallet is changing, as are packaging dimensions."

Automating The Layer Picking Process

After evaluating a number of layer picking systems, K+N turned to Univeyor, a material handling equipment provider headquartered in Denmark. Univeyor designed a unit, called the LayerPicker, which can de-palletize whole layers from pallets, as well as pick layers from pallet to pallet.

While layer pickers have been available for years, Beckmann says that there was not one, besides Univeyor's unit, that could handle the variety of products that go through K+N's distribution center. What's unique about the LayerPicker is its specially-designed low pressure vacuum head that can gently lift whole layers of products, including cases and cartons, cans, glass and plastic bottles, liquid containers and bagged goods.

"The LayerPicker is a fast, reliable and cost-efficient system for handling whole layers of almost any product. It can also handle shrink-wrapped articles, loose items in trays and all types of pallet patterns—even those with voids," says Kristian Dohn, global product manager for Univeyor and one of the inventors of the unit. "Plus, it enables the user to assemble multi-product pallets to customer orders without the costs, labor concerns and product damage associated with manual handling."

"The unit can handle up to 180 layers or 2,400 cases per hour. It would take more than a dozen workers to achieve this level of throughput in a manual operation," he says. "The units can be used to handle more than 95 percent of all products that are sold in supermarkets, which have the volume throughput to justify the investment."

The unit is controlled by a standard Windows platform and allows the user to make changes in product and/or pallet patterns. The system integrates into existing warehouse management systems (WMS) and can be used in a number of semi- and fully-automated applications including:

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