Speeding up delivery times

26 July 2022

A Belgian pork producer has installed robots as part of a just-in-time order fulfilment system that delivers customised products to supermarkets more quickly by disconnecting production from delivery.

When a large continental supermarket chain wanted its meat product supplier, Westvlees NV, to take on the logistics and distribution of products to stores to help reduce delivery time, Westvlees needed to reduce lead time from customised order to delivery from 48-hours to same day delivery while labeling and sorting orders for individual stores.   

To solve the problem Westvlees built an automated order fulfilment center which has succeeded in increasing the shelf life of products by 20% and reduced the lead-time from order to delivery by 50%.  Delivered to its supermarket stores, the prepacked pork products are individually labelled for each shop, cutting the time needed to get products onto the shelf. 

Westvlees produces around 140,000 tonnes of pork products per year.  Before automating the order fulfilment process it would deliver products pallet-by-pallet to the supermarket chain’s warehouse where order picking was done for shipment to supermarkets. This process was time consuming – taking up to a day to complete – which, of course, reduced the time the product was available on the shelf before it exceeded its maximum life span. 

To improve efficiency and reduce the time needed to get products in front of customers, the supermarket chain asked Westvlees to develop an order picking system that would produce labelled meat packages for each supermarket.  

Demanding flexibility
Manuel Goderis, product manager at Westvlees, said: “Our customers are demanding more flexibility and just-in-time delivery, so we worked with ABB to have the entire system automated.” 

Today the products are loaded onto trays by seven palletiser robots. These trays are placed by automated shuttles into an intermediate buffer using the white stock principle, in which generic stock is held temporarily until required to fulfil a customised order. The storage system has a capacity of 72,000 trays and can take in 16,000 trays an hour and take out 12,000 an hour.   

If products are needed immediately for a supermarket, the system will automatically take out a crate and transport it to the unpacking station. Products that are not needed go back into the system.  Customers can make an order until midday. On receipt of a customised order, a crate of trays is taken from the white stock buffer store and sent to the unloading station.  

Three delta-style robots unload products from the storage crates and place them on a conveyor to be sent to the labelling station. The selected products are then automatically labelled with a customised format for each supermarket, which often requires different labels with different pricing. Following the labelling stage, the products go to the order picking stations, where four robot cells place them into reusable plastic crates. These are then manually palletised for delivery to the supermarket. 

The system brings flexibility by disconnecting production from delivery – instead of a simple pallet of products, the customer receives pre-sorted, pre-labelled products ready to go to individual destinations. By pushing the order picking back to the supplier, delivery time is reduced by 50%, giving products an increased shelf life and making them available for longer to supermarket customers.  By separating the placing of products in trays from the labelling, Westvlees has also increased its machinery utilisation by up to 50%.  

The flexibility provided by the automated system enables Westvlees to respond quickly to customised orders, picking and labelling products and ensuring that they are delivered to the right destinations.  

Goderis believes that the robot-based packing system has prepared the company for the future, including processing orders placed via the internet. He said: “The system has given us the ability to process complete orders in much less time. With this improved performance we are now ready for e-commerce.” 

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