How an unexpected virus changes the world… Chaos, fear, death, new ways of living. Yet one thing remains. The highly automated warehouses build and operated by Witron are not affected and keep on performing at peak performance. See below how the first wave was mastered.
One virus, twelve weeks of “peak season” in food retailing, seven days of work per week, three shifts per day, 20 percent more workload daily, even 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, demand employees to take vacation days, while home schooling became a reality for all families, food retailers and logistics service providers were faced with tremendous challenges. Well-calculated decisions, flexible solutions, as well as a committed cooperation of all players in the supply chain – suppliers, logistics centres, service providers, stores – were required to maintain the basic supply of the population at all times and needed to avoid bottlenecks as much as possible.
When Christian Dietl reviews the numbers of June 2020, he is proud of his colleagues who are working in many logistics centres 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, and in the Benelux countries – wherever we are on site with our service teams and wherever the logistics centres are running with our automation technology OPM”, Christian Dietl, CEO of WITRON Services, looks back. Then there are the many construction sites that can slowly be started up again in these weeks. “This is also a logistical challenge for us. In Parkstein, we have already produced conveyor technology and control cabinets for projects in the US or Canada, but even today, some construction sites are still locked due to quarantine and country-specific travel conditions.”
The Corona pandemic is not over yet – Dietl knows that. After the exceptional spring season, he and his teams urgently needed a few days off to take a deep breath and relax. At the end of June, he is back in his office and sometimes has to rub his eyes when looking at the performance data and number of interventions of the last few months. 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 habbits 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. All employees as well as the technology and the WITRON OnSite teams, e.g. at EDEKA in Hamm (Germany), were faced with extraordinary challenges. 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. And not only in Germany, but worldwide, retailers were struggling with enormous order volumes. At Rema in Norway, for example, the volume was four times higher than the previous year. And our Norwegian clients also trusted in WITRON automation.
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 centres 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 the inner cities of Europe were emptying and the throughput in the stores was increasing, the logistics centres 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 centres, and the staff in the logistics centres 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. 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, while at the same time we had to cut down the planned maintenance intervals due to time constraints. “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 centre, consisting of Sobeys AND WITRON colleagues”, praises Fabien Roy, Logistics Manager at Sobeys in Canada.
Due to consistent hygiene concepts, WITRON had only four sick employees worldwide in the service teams who were very quickly isolated. “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 – large companies such as Bosch, but also smaller medium-sized enterprises, analysts, and scientists are convinced of this. In some industries, value added supply chains will shift back to Europe, 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 immeasurably. 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 modularisation in warehouses and logistics centres 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. Warehouse management, conveyor technology, forklifts, and autonomous transport systems (FTS/AGVs/AMR) must be able to react flexibly. The same applies to the service and maintenance teams. The production supply from the warehouse must be able to quickly adapt to new products or new manufacturing processes.
Adding to this is the continuing boom in e-commerce, which even in the Corona pandemic did not suffer any slumps; on the contrary, it recorded new growth figures. In this context, intra-logistics experts are pursuing different strategies. Flexible omni-channel solutions are the decisive approach. What unites all approaches is the importance of automation.
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.”