Witron helps Sainsbury’s to spice up its supply chain

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Witron’s Ergonomic Shuttle Picking System (E-SPS) and Dynamic Picking System (DPS) have both been installed at Sainsbury’s new K-line centre at Stoke and is already producing good results.

The Stoke site went live in March 2003 and completed its ‘ramp-up’ (the time taken from going live until achieving peak efficiency) eight months later. UK branch manager Karl Högen was confident in the company’s involvement and described the project as: “A Witron concept, a Witron design and a Witron realisation.” Having handled 1.5 million cases a week shortly after it completed the ‘ramp-up’ phase; its success soon grew to handle 1.8 million cases during Christmas last year. It expects to deliver 2 million this year and feels confident it can safely handle a December demand that is steadily increasing each year by approximately 200,000 cases.

K-line is a term used by Sainsbury’s for slow moving and non time-critical produce. The Sainsbury’s K-line automated facility at Stoke is managed by Power Europe, a subsidiary of Exel, that was awarded the contract back in 2001. It incorporates a modular warehouse and picking systems with equipment manufactured by a variety of companies. In construction, the project involved two 50m clear span trusses over a building length of 460m. The 50,000 sq m site delivers directly to 165 stores and a total of 500 overall. Severfield-Reeve carried out the full frame design, fabrication and erection of 2,980 tonnes of structural steelwork, including steel-framed internal mezzanine floors.

John Taylor, site general manager, says: “We are heavily into people. The site is very much like a village.” The centre has an interesting way of involving the staff with an “ownership” scheme of the replenishing and EPS cranes. Shift leaders are assigned cranes that become the personal responsibility of the shift team. Its well-being is down to them and a friendly competitiveness surrounds ensuring each crane is kept in good care and that any food spillages are cleaned quickly and effectively. Eddie Jones, operations team captain, comments: “The people in their cabs are responsible for their own hygiene. If they have a case fall down in there, they have to go down and clear it up. For a deep clean hygiene, that’s where your owners come in and specialist cleaners come in.”

The Ergonomic Picking Machines (EPMs) can be slowed from their 5.5mph speed (although it seems a lot faster in the warehouse) for slower efficiency periods and stopped to allow windows of time for cleaning and maintenance. However, it was eagerly pointed out that at no time does the whole system need to stop altogether. For times when a ‘deep-clean’ is required, other cranes can take up the slack, allowing others to be stopped, without affecting the overall performance of the system too much. When asked about the level of training required to operate the pickers, a warehouse employee comments: “Trainees complete four hours in the simulator before being allowed to operate a crane.”

For the safety of the crane operators, the system uses dead handles that will stop the crane should the operator let go. Because a passenger would not have the same stability, with the positioning of the handles, harnesses are required for any mechanics or passengers that may be in the crane, when in motion. The site tour also included a training model that guests were invited to climb into and experience the controls first hand.

Taylor complimented the efforts of the staff further: “We’ve all heard about the problems that Sainsbury’s have had, [but]this site is a testament to them.” He adds: “Without the people, the site wouldn’t be able to do what we do.” All around the depot were reminders of this staff focus and ‘village’ culture. It uses friendly competition among staff by publishing employee performance results and using an ‘ownership’ system for cleaners and engineers working on each high-speed crane. “I think people tend to shy away from the dreaded ‘R’ word ‘results’. We don’t.” The facility is currently boasting an accuracy figure between 99.2 per cent and 99.3 per cent.
In the second half of the conference, Witron representatives went into further detail about the equipment that was installed on the Stoke site as well as unveiling some of its other latest offerings in the world of automation;


The Dynamic Picking System is an efficient order picking solution that is currently installed at Sainsbury’s Stoke facility. The system incorporates different storage channels for fast moving and slow moving items. The practical benefits of the DPS include:

High cost savings.

Optimum ergonomics & 75 per cent shorter pick paths.

Store friendly picking with store specific sequencing.

High investment security.

Fixed price guarantee as a ‘Turnkey supplier’.

Standardised IT.


The Ergonomic Dynamic Picking System is a high-speed and fully automated solution, that uses double-deep racking and uses a “goods to man” principle. The system tries to give the picker the most ergonomic and efficient position to work from. Employees have unnecessary movement restricted, producing extra efficiency by having no picking distance and allowing staff to pick while seated with an automated count and system guided picking process. The system also enjoys the flexibility of being able to be stacked on-top of each other or side-by-side creating space for doubling or even tripling the tote locations. To create an environment for the system to achieve maximum efficiency, branch-en project Manager Jack Kuijpers says: “We think that normally you would need to have an average target of one and a half days of stock.” Because the replenishing takes place during picking – inbound and outbound happens at the same time, increasing the efficiency of the system. The system boasts the following benefits:

Can handle 1,000 order lines per hour per module.

Each module contains 20,000 tote locations and can handle 2,000 SKUs.

Optimal ergonomics.

Maximum effective performance using a minimal footprint.

One Automatic lift per module, that enables sequential the outbound of goods and is store-friendly.

Two AS-RS cranes which handle replenishment.

Three Picking Mini load cranes (PMLs).


The Ergonomic Shuttle picking system is also currently installed at the Sainsbury’s Stoke distribution centre. Picking is made with an automatically operated picking shuttle. It is replenished by an automatic system and boasts;

Computer-controlled picking process.

Fully automatic pallet replenishment.

No lifting or carrying for staff.

An almost zero error rate, as the computer tells pickers what and where to pick.


The Order Picking Machine is a fully-automated case picking process that offers sequenced supply, high flexibility and a fully-automated workflow of inbound to outbound goods. Witron have currently installed the OPM in five distribution centres, for five customers, on a straight-to-store basis. Kuijpers says: “We have done extensive tests and 90-95 per cent of store goods can be handled.” When asked about what kind of variety of sizes the system can handle he goes on to say: “We can calculate how big we need the tray buffer, how many SKUs we move. It is individualised.” The system offers the following benefits;

Can handle 500 cases per hour.

Careful product handling.

The OPM is fully automated.

Supply and separation of cases from tray.

It enables store friendly sequencing.

Ensures minimal cost per pick.

For a wide variety of SKUs and packaging.

Optimised build for pallets and roll-containers.

Witron is confident of its products and has a fully functioning demonstration of the OPM has been built in its Parkstein facility. It has been running for a year and customers are welcome to visit and watch it in action.

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