January 4, 2016
special report | Warehouse Automation

The driving force of automation

The driving force of automation

German auto parts supplier febi bilstein uses a set of sophisticated automated solutions to keep its customers' cars running right.

By David Maloney

Fast growth is often the catalyst that brings change to distribution operations. Such was the case for febi bilstein, one of the world's leading suppliers of aftermarket automotive parts.

Based in Ennepetal, Germany, febi is part of the Ferdinand Bilstein GmbH company, which was founded in 1844. Originally, it supplied tools and parts for the iron industry. Car parts distribution started in 1921, and that segment has grown rapidly with acquisitions of other parts suppliers, including the SWAG and Blue Print brands, which, like febi, are united under the umbrella of the bilstein group. The company now reaches customers in more than 140 nations worldwide. Most customers are wholesalers, though the company does distribute directly to some retailers and repair shops.

Over time, that steady growth began to put a strain on the fulfillment side of the operation. Simply put, febi bilstein realized it would have to expand its distribution capabilities to keep pace with demand. It would also need a way to accommodate its rising stock-keeping unit (SKU) counts. The Ennepetal operation currently handles about 47,000 SKUs, but that number is expected to grow substantially.

Trouble was, the Ennepetal facility's location offered no room to build out. The solution was to build upward with high-bay automated storage systems and to add automated systems to whisk orders through the site. The facility now contains 49,720 square meters (535,182 square feet) of processing space spread over several floors.

Since it automated its operations, febi bilstein is better able to control quality, costs, and labor. It also fits much more product into a smaller footprint.

But the parts supplier's huge investment in automation did not happen overnight. The family-owned company had first installed an automated picking solution—Witron's Order Picking System (OPS)—in 2005 to see if automation should be its direction for the future.

"We had a small OPS system as a trial system to find out whether we could cope with the technology and whether the collaboration with Witron was a good one," explains Felix Wortmann, febi bilstein's logistics planning manager. "We found out that our companies work very well together. So, when we decided to update or to improve our logistics, we developed two concepts: one was for a manually driven warehouse and the other one was automated."

Wortmann says febi bilstein decided to go with the automated solution because its business growth demanded it. "We know that the technology is the best solution for us. We can handle it, we can cope with it, and it provides the performance we require in our business," he says.

The entire system was completed in phases from 2005 until 2014 and represents an investment of more than 95 million euros (US$103.7 million). Witron designed and installed the automated system, which includes a high-bay automated pallet storage system, miniload tote storage, goods-to-person picking systems, packing stations, 2,700 meters (8,858 feet) of tote conveyors, 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) of pallet conveyors, and the warehouse management software (WMS) that ties it all together. The WMS is integrated with febi bilstein's SAP enterprise resource planning system.


The Ennepetal logistics center holds approximately 67 million euros (US$73 million) worth of products. Much of this inventory is now housed in the automated storage and retrieval systems, which include both miniload tote storage and pallet storage.

Vendors ship goods to Ennepetal in bulk, packed in wooden crates and corrugated boxes on pallets. Upon arrival, these bulk shipments are checked for quantity and quality, and moved into the 61,484 locations of the Witron-supplied Module Picking System (MPS), though some small-quantity items are placed directly into the miniload OPS.

The MPS is basically an automated pallet storage and retrieval system with 11 aisles served by a stacker crane in each aisle. The system uses only Euro-pallets that are capable of handling 2,000 pounds each. A dimensioning system measures loads before they enter storage to assure that there's nothing hanging over the pallet's edges that could jam up the automated equipment. At the same time, the pallets are weighed and compared with the target weight calculated during the goods-in process. Products in the MPS are used to replenish goods in the picking and repacking operations.

Repacking represents a huge part of the work done in Ennepetal, as 80 percent of parts received must be repacked into boxes or bags imprinted with one of the brands of the bilstein group before they can ship to customers. These include the febi, SWAG, and Blue Print brands. About half of the facility's 500 employees work in repackaging areas, handling about 100,000 individual parts each day. The Witron WMS now coordinates all of the repacking operations—a task that previously was carried out using only paper.

Although some repacked items go back onto pallets, most of the goods are placed into totes for transport to the facility's tote storage miniload systems that eventually feed picking areas. The miniloads include the site's original 2005 "trial" OPS system as well as a newer OPS tote system installed in 2008 that can accommodate 100,000 totes. The second OPS system was further expanded in 2012 to hold an additional 90,000 totes.

"We do not differentiate between the old and new or the original and new miniload system," says Wortmann. "For us, it is one big miniload system. Even if they are separated physically by a wall, logically they are 'one' OPS system."

All together, an impressive number of totes—nearly 230,000—can be stored in the OPS system. These are arranged along 23 aisles featuring double-deep storage. A crane in each aisle handles putaway and retrieval of the totes. Conveyors connect the original and new sections of the OPS, so that totes can be easily exchanged between the different parts of the system.

About 90 percent of the filled totes in the OPS contain items that have been repacked and are now ready for sale. The remainder hold pieces that are used to build kits.


Among the activities carried out in the repack operation is kitting, a process whereby workers assemble parts into kits that can be sold as a single repair solution. For example, a mechanic replacing a wheel bearing could buy a kit containing all the needed parts for the job, including the bearings, seals, and nuts.

Automation plays a role here as well, helping to ensure that all of the needed parts are accumulated properly at the workstation. The carton receiving the parts is placed on a scale. The scale's display screen has a visual indicator to show when the proper pieces are accumulated by weight—showing green when all parts are present (as determined by weight) and red when something is missing or there are too many parts in the carton. Another display presents a photo of each part to aid the packer in making sure the right parts are included. Approximately 20,000 kits are created daily in the facility.

The cartons of kits are packed into totes or onto pallets and become new SKUs that head to the OPS tote system or the MPS pallet system, where they are made available for order filling. Repacked items and larger kits that are too big to fit into the OPS are sent to pallet storage in the MPS system.


Febi bilstein's workers process about 1,100 orders each day, representing 130,000 individual items. The automated systems help to speed these orders along and allow much of the available labor to be diverted to repacking and other duties.

Items to be picked for orders come from each of the automated systems. Goods-to-person procedures are used to assure speed and accuracy.

In order to facilitate picking out of the OPS miniload, cranes are used to retrieve source totes containing products. These totes are then sent to 13 sequencing buffers. The buffers are designed to release the totes in a desired order to 26 goods-to-person picking stations located on two floors of the building, 13 stations per floor. Typically, heavier items are picked first and deposited into the bottom of customer totes, so these products are the first to enter a goods-to-person station. Items for individual customer orders are picked one at a time into a single staged order tote.

Source totes containing products are presented one at a time so that only one SKU is available for picking, virtually eliminating any chance for error. A display screen indicates the quantity of that SKU to pick into the order tote. As soon as the pick is confirmed, the weight of the source tote is checked as a further safeguard against picking errors. The source tote then leaves the picking station, and another source tote is immediately presented for the next selection. The totes continue arriving in this fashion until all items are picked for the order. In some cases, the order tote may be passed along to other picking stations to complete the selection process.

Once picking from the OPS is completed, the tote heads to one of 52 packing stations (two stations serve one goods-to-person picker). The WMS determines the size of the carton needed for the order and instructs the worker at the station to remove the items from the order tote and place them into the appropriate-sized carton. Many of the individual shipping cartons bound for repair shops are shipped out via parcel carrier. The parcels are accumulated into wire cages that forklifts load into the parcel trucks.

Orders heading to wholesale distributors are usually packed into large corrugated Gaylord boxes for shipment on pallets, while other customers' orders may be packed into wooden crates or metal racks, depending on customer requirements. Large odd-shaped items that don't fit into the typical carton are placed into large boxes and loaded individually onto trucks.

In a separate area of the building, workers process orders calling for large quantities and the larger items that are stored on pallets in the MPS. The pallets are retrieved from storage via 11 stacker cranes and then shuttled to 20 pick-and-pack stations. The shuttle delivers the source pallet to a worker at a processing station, which is flanked by four order pallets, two on each side. The worker then removes the needed items from the source pallet and places them into the appropriate cartons according to directions delivered via a pick-to-light system.

In some instances, products needed for orders may only be available in the OPS tote system. When that occurs, the picking process starts in the OPS goods-to-person area. The items are picked into totes that are then transported to workers at the MPS pick-and-pack area, where workers consolidate them with items from the MPS onto the order pallets.

Order pallets heading to domestic locations are strapped and conveyed to one of two areas where they are staged for shipping. Some of these will ship the same day, while others will head to a ground bulk warehouse where they're held until their shipping dates.

Meanwhile, order pallets destined for export are conveyed to a system known as the Extended Pallet System (XPS), which is an automated high-bay pallet storage system that acts as a shipping buffer. The system, which measures 27.6 meters (90.6 feet) high and 52 meters (167.3 feet) long, consists of 10,420 pallet positions served by four cranes. Products are held there while they await loading onto delivery trucks. Items packed into the Gaylord boxes at the OPS picking stations are also stored in the XPS buffers.


As with any highly automated system, febi bilstein's new setup carries an obvious risk: If a major part goes down, it can create bottlenecks up and down the line as well as delays for customers waiting for parts. For that reason, redundancy has been built into the site's storage systems and other automated equipment, so that products can be sourced from a number of different locations and delivered to more than one workstation.

Furthermore, as long as operations at the Ennepetal facility are up and running, there is always someone available to respond quickly to any problem in the system. "These people wear smartphones strapped to their wrists. If there are any problems, they are alerted and become first responders," explains Wortmann. "(The system) was a huge investment, so we have to keep it running."

A crew of 14 Witron technicians is also working on site for maintenance and to serve as second-level support to assist the first-level response crew. These technicians are trained on the specific components of each system. A final support stage is the help desk at Witron headquarters in Parkstein, Germany.

Wortmann says that febi bilstein is very pleased with its automated logistics center. The technology is well suited to the company's business processes and provides the desired accuracy and processing speed. "Looking back, I can say that with a manual system, we wouldn't have been able to cope with our business growth," he says. "The automated solution with Witron as the integrator was the right solution for us."


Editor's note: To see our exclusive video of febi bilstein's automated solutions—including the goods-to-person picking systems—in action, go to moveitshow.com.

About the Author

David Maloney
Editorial Director
David Maloney has been a journalist for more than 35 years and is currently the editorial director for DC Velocity and Supply Chain Quarterly magazines. In this role, he is responsible for the editorial content of both brands of Agile Business Media. Dave joined DC Velocity in April of 2004. Prior to that, he was a senior editor for Modern Materials Handling magazine. Dave also has extensive experience as a broadcast journalist. Before writing for supply chain publications, he was a journalist, television producer and director in Pittsburgh. Dave combines a background of reporting on logistics with his video production experience to bring new opportunities to DC Velocity readers, including web videos highlighting top distribution and logistics facilities, webcasts and other cross-media projects. He continues to live and work in the Pittsburgh area.

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