Through automation on the way to operational excellence

Arvato invests heavily in state-of-the-art technology for further growth

Automation and robotics play an increasingly important role in modern warehouses. The unstoppable growth of online business, the trend towards more and more direct-to-pharmacy, direct-to-hospital, direct-to-patient delivery and generally point-of-care delivery make automation especially sensible. This is also a reason for the healthcare division of Arvato Supply Chain Solutions to invest further in this area. "This enables us to grow together with our customers, react flexibly and efficiently to changing market needs and ultimately ensure optimal patient care," says Thorsten Winkelmann, President Healthcare.

Investments in the technical infrastructure

Various automation solutions have already been successfully installed at several healthcare locations this year or are currently in the planning stage. "We are investing a mid-two-digit million amount in our distribution centers alone. In Harsewinkel, we are investing in a shuttle system, and at other international locations we are putting three state-of-the-art Autostore solutions into operation," explains Thorsten Winkelmann. The aim of the new technologies is to optimize processes with complete transparency, increase productivity and at the same time further minimize the error rate.

Autostore at the Dutch logistics campus in Gennep

Arvato implements an Autostore at three locations

The use of an Autostore solution is particularly suitable for the fast picking of small products. Stacking totes directly on top of each other and storing multiple SKUs in a single bin allows better use of available space than any other automated system. Space savings of up to 40 percent can be achieved compared to conventional racking systems. "Such a solution is scalable, can be integrated extremely quickly into existing warehouse structures and benefits from low maintenance costs," explains Ralph Bamberg, Director Logistics Engineering. Each of the small robots can take up to 40 containers, with a maximum load of 30 kilograms, to the picking station in an hour. An Autostore solution is ideal when the products are clearly assigned to an ABC structure. Medical technology and medicines that are often needed (so-called fast-moving items) are stored further up the system and can be accessed quickly.


Layout Autostore site Gennep

Another advantage of the Autostore solution is the easy scaling. Grids (this is the name of the aluminum frame on which the robots also run on top) can be added easily, depending on the area and height of an existing hall. The system can be flexibly expanded with individual robots and ports as warehouse delivery volumes increase. These would then be ready for use within two weeks after the technology suppliers have provided the components. Both the scalability of the picking performance and the storage locations is possible in small steps.

A first Autostore for the healthcare sector was already put into operation this fall at our Dutch logistics campus in Gennep. Go Live of the multi-client Autostore at the Hamburg site is planned for Q1 2022, as is a third facility in Memphis, Tennessee, USA.

Layout of the new shuttle in Harsewinkel

Shuttle solutions at the Harsewinkel location

When it comes to finding a suitable automation solution, Shuttle and Autostore compete with each other, as both technologies can achieve similarly good productivity.  Just like an Autostore, a Shuttle is modularly expandable, benefits from low maintenance costs and stands for optimal space utilization. "Whether a Shuttle solution or an Autostore system is better suited for a customer can only be determined after a detailed analysis of inventory and delivery quantities and the structure of the products. Our experts for innovative warehouse management solutions accompany the processes along the entire process chain - from planning to implementation," explains Ralph Bamberg.


Layout with transfer to the conveyor system

Shuttle systems transfer the totes, which can carry a load of up to 50 kilograms, to a vertical conveyor system; the order picking functionality follows the goods-to-person principle, just as in the case of the Autostore. Especially with order lines per hour, it does not take up any further automation technology with a shuttle. The capacity per aisle in a one-dimensional shuttle is 400-650 movements per hour; in a three-dimensional shuttle this number even increases to up to 1,100 movements. The shuttle picks up a load unit at the put away location, brings it to the preselected shelf compartment, drives to another shelf compartment, takes out a storage unit and transports it to the retrieval location. "The advantage of this so-called double play is the travel path optimization of the shuttle. Combined storage and retrieval increases the efficiency of the entire value-added process of warehouse logistics, as the shuttle robot avoids empty runs, repeatedly stores and retrieves goods on its way and improves throughput by up to 10 percent," says Gustavo de la Torre, Logistics Engineering at Arvato Supply Chain Solutions. The extremely high processing volumes are therefore among the clear advantages.


The overall height also plays a decisive role. Standard heights are between 12 and 15 meters for such a system but building heights of up to 30 meters are also possible. By making optimum use of the available height, more storage space can be accommodated in fewer square meters.

Another aspect that speaks for the use of a shuttle is a certain uncertainty in forecasting sales structures over a longer period. "Especially at our location in Harsewinkel, we serve very different clients, so that no distinct ABC distribution of products can be predicted. Thanks to the shuttle, we have quick and direct access to the products and do not need any lead time to bring the items up from a lower shelf, as is the case in the Autostore," says Fabian Generotzky, Director Operations at the Harsewinkel site. "One disadvantage of going there is the longer implementation phase of more than a year.”

Additional conversion measures in the cold and ambient area

In addition to the construction of an ultra-modern shuttle, further conversion measures are pending at the Harsewinkel site. For example, the cold area (for products that have to be stored at 2-8°C) and the ambient area (15-25°C) will be completely separated and extended in terms of building technology. 10,000 additional pallet spaces as well as 6,000 m² of working space will be gained in the ambient area alone - in the cooling area an additional 4,000 pallet spaces will be created.

The new technology also means advantages for employees, the environment and end customers. In future, the cardboard boxes will be automatically erected and made available at the pick and pack stations. Pre-packed cartons are automatically cut down to the required height and sealed. This not only reduces the amount of filling material, but also lowers the risk of injury, e.g. from cuts. The application of the address label is also automated. The entire conversion is expected to be completed in 2022 and the new technology will be put into operation.

Driverless transport system takes over pallet transport at the site in Harsewinkel

“Since the beginning of this year, the process automation of our Arvato locations has begun with the success of the autonomous vehicles already implemented in Harsewinkel”, project manager Erich Berg is pleased to report.

Since the Go Live at the end of January 2020, the six fully automated industrial trucks have transported over 100,000 floor-level pallets to their respective destinations with millimeter precision and without errors - fully automatically and autonomously. "In the last three months, the automated guided vehicle system (AGV) has exceeded the planned monthly number of 8000 by 4000 trips each”, explains Erich Berg.  “With their efficient work, the vehicles live up to their name: we affectionately call them our "Superhero’s", because they bear the names of Hulk, Superman, Spiderman, Thor, Super Richie and Batman.”

Real-time tracking through optimal interfaces

The smooth process is achieved by interfaces to the warehouse management software, to the control of the conveyor system and by the introduction of AGV-specific scan dialogs, through which all internal warehouse transports and thus also each delivery and reception of the pallets can be traced in real time. "Incoming and outgoing goods can now be handled more efficiently and thus also reduce empty runs", explains Fabian Generotzky. "We can also track that specified temperatures have never been exceeded at any time. That is important. After all, pharmaceutical logistics are subject to particularly strict quality specifications.”

Can be used around the clock

The vehicles are always on the spot, seven days a week and around the clock, which significantly accelerates the goods retrieval and delivery processes. If the necessary energy is not available after a full working day, the built-in lithium-ion batteries can be recharged by the transport robots themselves; at the end of operation or during idle times, the vehicles dock onto their charging station without human intervention.

"Driverless transport systems bring us quality improvements, cost reductions, considerable time savings and also an enormous reduction in workload. This means a big step forward in the automation of our logistics processes and for our business. That is why as many other Arvato locations around the world as possible should benefit from these profitable advantages in the future", explains Fabian Generotzky.

Fast order processing thanks to so called A-frames

At another location, Arvato relies on automated handling of all picking processes. The core area of this facility is a so-called "A-Frame" with 850 top articles. 75 percent of all orders are filled directly from the A-Frame, eliminating the need for a manual picking process. "The new system can process around 1,000 shipments within one hour without the need for paperwork", says Thomas Leitner, Director E-Commerce Arvato Supply Chain Solutions. "Thanks to the new technology, we can continue to drive the e-commerce business at a high level of quality for many new customers", says Leitner happily.

With this future-oriented approach, Arvato Supply Chain Solutions continues to position itself in the international market, thus creating the prerequisites for continuing the positive development of the healthcare business in recent years. "In addition to improving efficiency and quality in the existing business, Arvato is optimally prepared for new, large healthcare businesses, for example from the MedTech, pharmaceutical, generics and e-commerce segments", Thorsten Winkelmann summarized.

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