Peeling Off The Layers

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

  • Order assembly of mixed pallets;
  • Order assembly of sandwich pallets;
  • De-palletizing of whole layers to feed cross docking systems and sorting or replenishing flow racks or pick fronts;
  • Layer picking and inserting slip sheets.

K+N tested the unit and found, to Beckmann's delight, that it could handle 90 percent of its products. "The unit was able to handle just about any item we fed it, so if our suppliers decided to change packaging, for example, the LayerPicker would be able to accommodate the new dimensions," says Beckmann.

Working With The WMS

The unit proved to be a perfect solution for K+N and the 3PL installed two LayerPickers in the Veghel facility four years ago. They are at the center of its automated material handling system. The WMS collects incoming orders in batches, decides which orders can be collected as full layers and passes the information to the LayerPicker about product type, dimensions, quantity and stacking sequences for each pallet.

Once the system has received an order, it automatically moves full pallets through the 410,000 square-foot facility, from a high bay warehouse, to the LayerPickers. There, layers are removed from the source pallet and crossed over to the customer's pallet, which is being built according to the order. The mixed pallet is finished, stretch-wrapped and moved to the loading area.

Today, more than 20 percent of K+N's volume at Veghel goes through the LayerPickers, and the company plans to add units at some of it other European distribution centers.

Beckmann says the system was well worth the investment. "We've reduced our staff from 20 pickers to four and increased our picking efficiency by 20 percent," he says. In fact, K+N has been able to pass the savings to its customers as well, offering a 20 percent discount to those who order in full layers.

"Our customers are key to our success. We had to work in close cooperation with them in terms of the packaging specifications. We had to make sure that the packaging wouldn't create a problem with the automation and it has worked out well for all of us," he says.

Smaller, More Frequent Deliveries

With more stores requiring smaller, more frequent deliveries, the LayerPicker is also appealing to European retailers such as Albert Heijn and Netto.

Albert Heijn (AH), a leading Dutch supermarket chain, has two LayerPickers integrated into its order-picking system at its Pijnacker distribution center, which sends some 130,000 items each day to its 189 stores throughout the Netherlands.

"We wanted to increase our order-handling capacity, reduce the need for manual labor and improve efficiency—especially for the fast movers," says Hans Eil, project manager of the Pijnacker facility. "We replenish our stores within 24 hours of receiving an order and the LayerPicker is a key component of our order-picking modules."

The order-picking modules are flow racks designed to handle 3,000 cases per hour, which are sequenced into store orders. Before the cases are entered into the system, however, they must be removed from the pallets, which is where the LayerPickers come into play. "The unit is responsible for product de-palletizing and de-scrambling and automatically replenishing flow racks, from where individual store orders are assembled into the roll carts," says Eil.

Like K+N, one of the biggest challenges of employing the LayerPicker was getting suppliers to adhere to packaging standards, says Eil, and it took a lot of trial and error to get it right, but it was well worth it. The LayerPicker now handles 97 percent of the products in the order-picking module—about 43 percent of the products that go through the distribution center as a whole.

Accuracy has increased, labor has been dramatically reduced and the best part? "The LayerPicker doesn't call in sick," says Eil.

Netto is Denmark's largest grocery chain, serving 1,000 stores under the Netto banner. Its distribution center in Koege is located about 50 miles south of Copenhagen. The 400,000-square foot facility, the largest in Denmark, was built in 2003 and features two high bay warehouses—one for dry product and one for refrigerated.

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