Automated storage and retrieval systems are commonly used for storing inventory in distribution centers, but they can also support manufacturing operations, including food production. Such is the case with the automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) at Feinkost Dittmann, one of Germany's leading suppliers of specialty food products.
Founded in 1891, family-owned Feinkost Dittmann annually sells over $160 million worth of specialty food products, many of which have a distinct Mediterranean flavor. Ingredients are sourced from all over the world. For instance, olives and peppers might come from Greece, Turkey, or Spain. Capers originate in Uzbekistan. Salmon comes from Alaska and garlic from China.
Although Dittmann has processing plants in Turkey, Spain, and Greece, its main production facility is located in Taunusstein, Germany, where a few years ago, the company built an automated warehouse to support production and store finished goods.
"The company has grown very fast in the past 20 years," says Thorsen Reichold, Dittmann's CEO. "Before the new automated facility was built, we had to store products in an outside warehouse about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away." Shuttling products back and forth proved to be costly and time consuming as well as error prone, he says.
"The main point was that we needed the space. We have only a small amount of land, so that is why we decided to build an automatic warehouse with systems that would deliver the exact quantity of products when we need them for production," says Reichold.
The warehouse allows production to keep up with growth as well as with customers' demand for a wider product mix. Currently, the company produces some 1,300 different items. These include fresh goods packaged for immediate use as well as products in jars and pouches that have a longer shelf life.
The facility experiences peak demand around the holidays. It is particularly active from October through December, with demand for the company's fresh products peaking during the 10 days before Christmas.
"Competition is fierce, so we need to make sure our processes are optimal," says Reichold.REACHING NEW HEIGHTS
The new high-bay warehouse stands 30 meters high (about 98 feet). Since local laws restrict a building's height to just 10 meters (32.8 feet), much of the warehouse was built below ground level. Krones, a Germany-based supplier of bottling equipment and material handling systems, provided the AS/RS and the warehouse management system (WMS). The software integrates directly with the Microsoft Dynamics NAV enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that runs the overall operation.
Krones has a history with Feinkost Dittmann, as it supplied some of the filling equipment and labeling systems used in the production areas. Nonetheless, the selection of Krones to build the warehouse was the result of a chance encounter, Reichold says.
"We started this project with another supplier," he explains. "Then, while we were meeting with the people from Krones about labeling machines, they saw I had plans on my desk and asked what we were doing. I told them we were building a new automated warehouse, and they said, 'We do that too.'"
Reichold notes that one of the reasons that Dittmann chose Krones for the project was that although it's a very large manufacturer, it acts like a family company and responds quickly to customer needs. "This is for us an important point," he says.
The AS/RS that Krones supplied consists of five lanes with 15 storage levels and 12,500 pallet positions. The lanes are divided into three temperature zones: a deep-freeze lane that keeps products at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, a refrigerated lane area whose temperature is set at 39 degrees Fahrenheit, and three ambient lanes for ingredients that do not require temperature control. Some finished goods are also stored in the ambient lanes.
Plastic barrels and large containers containing tomatoes, fresh olives, olive oil, fruits, pickles, artichokes, vinegars, sauces, and more are received on pallets at the facility's docks. Most of these incoming pallets are suitable for use with the automated equipment, but about 10 percent need to be transferred to other pallets before entering the AS/RS.
Forklifts deposit the pallets onto conveyors that feed the automated equipment. Storage and retrieval cranes located in each lane of the AS/RS then take products to their assigned storage locations. The cranes can each handle 50 pallets per hour.
Throughout the day, about 300 pallets of ingredients are removed from their storage locations and sent to production to keep the manufacturing lines operating continuously. The same cranes retrieve the pallets and place them onto outbound conveyors, where a vertical lift then raises the load to an upper level. There, a shuttle system that can hold two pallets at a time picks up the loads and transports them through an overhead bridge approximately 300 feet to production. Once the loads arrive in the manufacturing area, a forklift retrieves the pallets for transport to the production lines.MIX, FILL, REPEAT
Before they enter the processing area, many of the items, such as olives, are placed into large vats for washing. They are then sent to one of several production lines, depending on how they will be mixed with other ingredients and packaged.
Four production lines operate throughout two daily shifts in the manufacturing areas at Taunusstein. One production area handles fresh products. Fresh olives, pasta shells, and other delicacies are mixed in large tubs to create Mediterranean salads before being hand packed into plastic store-ready containers.
Other lines rely heavily on automated processes. Ingredients are mixed in large tubs and then inducted into automatic filling machines. One line, for instance, mixes sauces such as taco sauce, tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, and ketchup. Other lines package olives, peppers, anchovies, pepper balls, fish, caviar, and other specialty offerings.
Products sold in jars are also filled via automated equipment. The jars are sequenced to receive the ingredients in what appears to be a highly choreographed process as they're whisked through the filling machines. Once filled, the jars are capped and labeled in a language appropriate for the destination market before being packed into cases.
Robots handle some of the palletizing duties and are able to arrange 77 cases per minute onto pallets. Many of these cases will be routed back to the warehouse AS/RS for temporary storage until they are readied for shipping.CONSISTENT FLOW
Since Dittmann built the new warehouse, production has been able to keep up with demand. The automated systems deliver the right ingredients to the lines when needed so that the production lines can keep running without break. Managers are also better able to track what ingredients are on hand and where they are located.
"Before, we worked with paper, and people had to go and look for the products. Now, we know what we have in stock," notes Reichold. "This is a big advantage for us. Everything is much easier now."