One virus, twelve weeks of “peak season” in food retailing, three shifts every day, 20 percent more workload, up to 300 percent more workload on peak days, one technical breakdown, four sick employees, stagnant construction sites due to travel restrictions—the bottom line of the Corona pandemic from WITRON’s point of view. While many industry sectors had to “lock down” all activities, reduce work hours, food retailers and logistics service providers were faced with tremendous challenges. Well-calculated decisions, flexible solutions, and good cooperation of all players in the supply chain—suppliers, logistics centers, service providers, stores, were required to maintain the basic supply of the population at all times and were needed to avoid any bottlenecks.
When Christian Dietl CEO of WITRON Services reviews the numbers of June 2020, he is proud of his colleagues at the many logistics centers all over Europe and North America. “Together with our customers, we have kept the warehouses running; we have never ever experienced such a rush. And this was not only in one country, but in the US, Canada, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Norway… wherever the logistics centers are running with our automation technology OPM.”
Heroes of spring
The Corona pandemic is not over yet—Dietl knows that. But the spring months of 2020 know many heroes: Nurses, doctors, truck drivers, supermarket cashiers, many other professions, but also the technicians, and order pickers in the logistics centers of the large supermarket chains. People bought ten packages of pasta instead of two, and cans, convenience food, yeast, soap, and toilet paper also became scarce in many supermarkets. But there was never a serious supply shortage.
“In the months of March, April, May, and through to mid-June, the panic related shopping habits of the consumers presented us with major logistical challenges. The highest volume sales weeks of the year, usually at Christmas and Easter, were clearly exceeded. During this time, WITRON’s automation technology with its readiness and performance has made a significant contribution to meet the needs of our customers,” explains Peter Bayer from Edeka Handelsgesellschaft Rhein-Ruhr, a German retailer.
High flexibility of the service teams
The statements of the customers underline the competence of the WITRON OnSite teams, but also the efficiency of WITRON’s technology. “During this time, we only had one major technical defect in the 75 food logistics centers around the globe, which operate with our OPM technology,” Dietl remembers and continues clicking through the charts. “Even though we had to keep the systems running at full capacity and beyond.”
While throughput in the stores was increasing, the logistics centers were running at full speed, the importance of automation was growing and so was the importance of the people in the warehouses. Truck drivers were no longer allowed to enter the distribution centers, and the staff in the logistics centers now had to handle the incoming goods. “New personnel was obviously out of reach. We had to restructure our teams to prevent infections. So we worked with smaller maintenance teams and really only carried out the most necessary life-sustaining measures on the machines,” explains Dietl. In July, the teams had already caught up on the maintenance backlogs in May and June. “We learned a lot about the load limits of the components and this is now being incorporated into our future concepts.”
During this time, the WITRON technicians developed efficient concepts to keep the system performance high at all times. “In addition, our cross-trained colleagues on site can change their roles very quickly—from a system operator to a maintenance technician and back again.” Flexibility paid off, and still pays off in times of Corona. “I have always said that we have the best team because there is only ONE team at the Terrebonne distribution center, consisting of Sobeys and WITRON,” praises Fabien Roy, Logistics Manager at Sobeys in Canada.
Even more automation
“We will continue to work in the Corona mode and will continue to rely on distance rules and set teams,” says Christian Dietl. But what comes after the crisis?
Automation will be the winner of the pandemic—at large companies such as Bosch, but also at smaller medium-sized enterprises. In some industries, value added supply chains will shift back to Western countries, and security of supply will become increasingly important. “We are moving towards glocalization,” explained Wolfram Senger-Weiss, Chairman of the Executive Board of the logistics service provider Senger-Weiss, in a recent interview.
A Bosch analysis further states: The challenge here will be to prevent logistics costs from rising too much. Economist Mark Carney talks to the major German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, about a cutback in efficiency. This can be prevented. It also means that automation and modularization in warehouses and logistics centers will benefit greatly from the trend towards greater supply security. Storage capacities must be able to be built up and decreased even faster in the future.
Adding to this is the continuing boom in e-commerce. In this context, intra-logistics experts are pursuing different strategies. Flexible omnichannel solutions are the decisive approach in most industries.
But for Christian Dietl and his service and maintenance teams, Corona remains the focus. “The disease is still there, it will occupy us for even longer—socially, economically, and technologically. It turned out that the WITRON crisis management works; the systems run reliably with high availability even under permanent high volume requirements, and the OnSite teams roll up their sleeves—supporting them around the clock with great commitment. Together with our customers, we will continue to successfully master the challenges.”