In the recently opened distribution centre of dm Drogeriemarkt in Wustermarkt near Berlin, about half of the store pallets are packed fully automatically for the first time: by seven Kuka robots, controlled by the ACPaQ system of the Kuka subsidiary Swisslog. The logic behind the system and the robots’ gripping forks are also a premiere for robot manufacturer Kuka and Swisslog.
After numerous projects from different manufacturers, in which robots were to take over the picking of consumer goods, failed due to the instability and diversity of the outer packaging of cases, Swisslog now sees the solution developed with dm as a turning point.
But a closer look at the system shows that the logic behind it works very much like that of its competitor Witron, which has been building fully automated distribution centers for consumer goods for over 16 years — without any robots at all.
Cases need to be seperated
The dream that robots would pack at least fast-moving items from the full pallet directly onto the store pallets was not realised in Wulstermark either.
Swisslog’s competitor Witron had already developed an automated case picking system in 2004 together with the second largest US food retailer, Kroger, in its distribution center in Tolleson, Arizona – without any robotic at all. Since then, many retailers have had such warehouses built by Witron, including Mercadona, Edeka and Migros in Europe.
One of the disadvantages of the Witron system has always been that it requires the separation and storage of each case, which results in a huge material need with automated tray warehouses and conveyor lines.
Similar to the systems Witron builds, special Kuka robots first depalletise the full pallets completely in the new dm distribution centre in Wulstermak. The trading units are then stored in the Swisslog shuttle system CycloneCarrier with an impressive 265,000 storage spaces. From there they are delivered case by case in the correct sequence to the seven robots that build the pallets for the stores.
Like Swisslog, Vanderlande, another pioneer of warehouse automation, now also offers automated case picking with robots that follows Witron’s logic: all cases are stored individually and are delivered again case by case for automatic packing of mixed pallets.
Robots pick several units simultaneously
Even if the cases are initially separated, the Swisslog-controlled robots can still take up to four units at a time, making their work up to three times faster than humans: they pack around 1,000 units per hour, 24 hours a day without a break.
The construction of the new, 100 million Euro dm distribution center near Berlin took almost two years. After the order was placed with the automation specialist, it took as much as 33 months until the opening.
After Waghäusel in Baden-Württemberg and Weilerswist in North Rhine-Westphalia, Wustermark in Brandenburg is Swisslog’s third large-scale facility in Germany that the Kuka subsidiary has built for dm Drogeriemarkt.
All dm markets in the north and east of Germany are now to be supplied from Wustermark. Even within Germany, dm continues to grow: the automatic high-bay warehouse at this new location alone holds 24,000 pallets.