The rolling hills of Lower Bavaria are known for their natural springs. Nestled in a valley near the town of Schierling is Labertaler, one of Germany's leading producers of natural spring waters and other beverages.
In the U.S., a handful of brands dominate the bottled water market, but it's a different story in Germany. German bottlers face stiff competition, with a wide variety of waters vying for the consumer's dollar. These include mineral water, plain (non-carbonated) water, high vitality water, and flavored waters. And the variety of offerings continues to grow, which means companies like Labertaler must contend with a constantly expanding stock-keeping unit (SKU) base.
Family-owned Labertaler has been a regional bottler in Bavaria since 1949, when it delivered homemade lemonade by handcart. Times have changed, and Labertaler has long since replaced the handcart with modern technology in an effort to improve customer service, process higher volumes, and accommodate 320 different beverage products. Labertaler now boasts a highly automated DC adjacent to its Schierling bottling plant from which it distributes water, juice, and soft drinks produced at the plant as well as both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages supplied by other manufacturers. Many of these products are sold through its 150 company-owned beverage stores, branded as Hausler GetrÃ¤nkemarkt. It also distributes beer, juice, and sodas to wholesale customers.
Krones, a German material handling company that specializes in beverages, provided most of the bottling and handling equipment in the production plant, so it was only natural that Labertaler would turn to Krones to design and implement its warehouse systems. The materials handling solution Krones engineered includes automated guided vehicles, high-density automated storage, transfer shuttle cars, and plenty of pallet conveyors to link them all together.
WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE
Today, the process unfolds with well-tuned precision. Incoming shipments are delivered by truck to a transportation hall located on the DC's ground level. Beverage trucks pull into the building for unloading at eight positions, opening their side doors to give lift trucks access to their contents. The truck drivers carry PDAs (personal digital assistants), which they use to transfer data on their inbound loads to the facility's enterprise resource planning (ERP) system upon arrival.
Adjacent to the open transportation hall is a two-level transport system featuring rail-guided shuttles. The shuttles serve both incoming and outgoing products. Received goods are handled on the lower shuttle, while goods that are ready for loading onto trucks flow out from the upper shuttle system, which operates above receiving and about 10 feet from floor level. The open design allows lift trucks to access the input and output stations of both shuttles from the main floor.
Lift trucks are dispatched to collect pallets from the delivery trucks and ferry them the short distance to the receiving stations of the shuttle. Upon arrival, the lift trucks simply place their loads on the shuttle input positions. A shuttle car then takes the pallet and transfers it to conveyors for transport to the high-bay storage area.
While plastic single-use bottles are becoming more popular in Germany, most beverages are still packaged in reusable glass bottles. These empties, returned from stores and wholesale customers, are unloaded from delivery trucks and transferred to the lower-level shuttle. From there, the empty bottles are raised with a vertical lift and then diverted to an overhead bridge, where they're deposited on a conveyor that whisks them to the adjacent bottling plant.
Once the empty-bottle pallets arrive at the production side of the bridge, a lift automatically lowers them to the first-floor level. From there, one of the facility's eight automated guided vehicles (AGVs) gathers the pallets, four at a time, from the lifts and carries them to temporary storage or bottling operations as needed. The empty bottles are eventually washed and refilled.
Bottling takes place on three lines using local spring water. Two lines handle glass bottles, while the third fills plastic bottles. The bottles are placed into beverage crates, which are then stacked onto pallets, typically 36 crates per pallet. The same AGVs that handle the empty returned bottles also move the filled crates. The pallet loads are taken to a vertical lift, which raises them to the overhead bridge. A conveyor in the bridge, flowing in the opposite direction from the returned bottles, transports them to other conveyors that move them to the high-bay input stations.
Local zoning regulations in Schierling restrict the height of Labertaler's high-bay warehouse to 28 meters (about 92 feet). As a result, Labertaler opted for deep-lane automated storage to maximize capacity in a small footprint. Pallets here are packed densely into long channels.
Approximately 400 SKUs find a home in 15,000 high-bay positions that are redundantly spread over 11 levels. Incoming pallets are transferred upon arrival to one of two vertical lifts that move them to their assigned levels. Typically, one lift is used for inbound pallets and the other for outbound, but each lift can serve both functions.
From the lift, each pallet is moved to a transfer car that runs down the middle of each level, perpendicular to the 72 channel lanes. The warehouse management system (WMS), also supplied by Krones, assigns the storage positions dynamically. Once the transfer car reaches the appropriate lane, a small shuttle extends from the car to move product down the lanes, left or right, depending on the product's storage destination. The lanes to the left can hold 11 pallets, while those to the right house products eight positions deep.
The shuttle glides under the pallet and lifts it for transport down the lane. It then ferries its load to the assigned position, measuring the distance within the lane by the length of the extended shuttle cable in combination with lasers. Normally, only one SKU from one production batch is assigned per lane. This arrangement assures that all SKUs are accessible at any time and that there is flexibility to process items on a first-in/first-out basis. Most products stay in the high bay only a few days. All told, the system can handle 310 inbound pallets per hour.
ABOVE AND BELOW
The deep-lane storage system at Labertaler is designed with an access deck near the racking's vertical midpoint. Visitors to the facility are treated to a special-effects show thanks to some creative lighting here. Levels above the deck are bathed in blue light, while those below are washed in red. Labertaler calls it "heaven and hell," and the effect, especially looking down into the depths, is striking.
New products continually move in, while products needed for orders or to replenish the crate picking areas are gathered with the same shuttles for output. The shuttles slide under the loads, lift them up to clear the rails, and return them to the transfer cars. The transfer cars next reload the pallets onto a lift for placement onto an outbound lane. The system can discharge 360 pallets per hour at peak.
Products that will ship as full pallets are conveyed to the dispatch shipping area located in the transportation hall. A shuttle car picks up each load and delivers it to an assigned staging lane. Lift trucks gather the loads and place them onto the appropriate beverage trucks.
Other pallets coming from the high-bay warehouse replenish a crate picking area on the upper floor of the two-level DC (on the floor above the transportation hall). Picking items in crate quantities is a growing trend, as an ever-expanding array of flavors and varieties are being shipped to stores. As a result, mixed pallets now make up the majority of loads.
The crate picking area is divided into four modules. It features 320 different SKUs of products and has one picking slot assigned for each of those SKUs. Four rail shuttle cars move within the modules, one per module, to automatically restock products. Each of the 320 storage locations holds two pallets, so that a fresh pallet is always available for picking. In effect, the system has a capacity of 640 pallets.
While the WMS is capable of dynamically assigning storage locations in the crate pick area (as in the high-bay warehouse), Labertaler has found assigning SKUs to fixed slots to be more efficient. That's because it has a fairly stable SKU base, with items that are selected repeatedly. Plus, in contrast to the high bay, humans are involved in the picking here, and fixed slots make it easier for them to find product and help assure accuracy.
The WMS uses a voice system to provide workers with instructions for selecting crates and building mixed-SKU order pallets onto walkie rider trucks. Approximately 2,800 crates an hour can be selected in the crate pick area. While the warehouse turns its inventory every few days, stock turns even faster in the peak seasons—summer time when demand for water spikes, and holidays such as Christmas and Easter. During these periods, the manufacturing plant operates around the clock, while a second shift is employed in the distribution building.
Once a mixed pallet is complete, the operator moves it to one of the shuttle system's input stations. The shuttle then delivers it to the conveyors for transport to shipping (or if it's not needed immediately for loading, it can be sent to temporary holding in the high-bay warehouse). The shuttle system in the shipping area also has some buffering capability to gather pallet loads from all of the processing areas (bottling, the automated storage system, and the crate pick areas) until everything needed for the shipment has been accumulated and the scheduled truck arrives. Typically, the building can process about 10 truckloads per hour. Labertaler operates its own fleet but also contracts with for-hire carriers when needed.
As for the results? By all accounts, the new system has been a success. Today, the high-bay warehouse and automated systems at Labertaler keep the beverages flowing like, well, water.