ABB automated order picking system to speed up delivery times and extend product shelf life

Belgium’s largest pork producer has installed ABB robots as part of a Just-in-Time order fulfilment system that delivers customized products to supermarkets more quickly.


The challenge: 
A large supermarket chain wanted its meat product supplier Westvlees to take on the logistics and distribution of products to stores and reduce delivery time. To achieve this, Westvlees needed to reduce lead time from customized order to delivery from 48 hours to same day delivery while labeling and sorting orders for individual stores.   

The solution: 
A fully automated robotic system brings the unlabeled, packed products from production to an intermediate buffer using the white stock principle, in which generic stock is held temporarily until required to fulfil a customized order. Using order information, the white stock is buffered to ensure minimal transit time. On receipt of a customized order, the products are automatically taken out of the buffer. The products are unloaded from trays by ABB FlexPicker robots. The products are labeled to meet the needs of individual supermarkets and then sent to the customer’s depot for crossdocking, where products are unloaded and sent directly to their destinations without putting them into storage first. 

Lead-time from order to delivery reduced by 50 percent 

With food producers and retailers both keen to maximize the choices on offer to customers whilst minimizing wastage due to food going out of date, the ability to get products onto shelves as quickly as possible for as long as possible is becoming increasingly important.  

Belgian meat products company Westvlees NV has achieved this by using automation to build an order fulfilment center that has increased the shelf life of products by 20 percent and reduced the lead-time from order to delivery by 50 percent.  Delivered to the supermarket chain’s stores, the prepacked pork products are individually labelled for each shop, cutting the time needed to get products onto the shelf. 

Based in Western Belgium, Westvlees NV operates the largest pork processing plant in the country, producing 140,000 tonnes of pork products per year.  

Previously, Westvlees would deliver products pallet-by-pallet to the supermarket chain’s warehouse where order picking was done for shipment to supermarkets. This process was time consuming – taking up to a day to complete, this reduced the time the product was available on the shelf before it exceeded its maximum life span. 

To improve efficiency and reduce the time needed to get products in front of customers, the supermarket chain asked Westvlees to develop an order picking system that would produce labelled meat packages for each supermarket.  

Manuel Goderis, Product Manager at Westvlees says: “Our customers are demanding more flexibility and Just-in-Time delivery, which is why we worked with ABB to have the entire system automated.” 

The products are loaded onto trays by seven IRB660 robots. These trays are placed by automated shuttles into the white stock buffer. The storage system has a capacity of 72,000 trays and can take in 16,000 trays an hour and take out 12,000 an hour.  

If products are needed immediately for a supermarket, the system will automatically take out a crate and transport it to the unpacking station. Products that aren't needed go back into the system.  

Customers can order until midday. When orders arrive, a crate of trays is taken from the white stock buffer store and sent to the unloading station.  

Three ABB FlexPickers unload products from the storage crates and place them on a conveyor to be sent to the labelling station. The selected products are then automatically labelled with a customized format for each supermarket, which often require different labels with different pricing. Following the labelling stage, the products go to the order picking stations, where four robot cells place them into reusable plastic crates. These are then manually palletized for delivery to the supermarket. 

The system brings flexibility by disconnecting production from delivery – instead of a simple pallet of products, the customer receives pre-sorted, pre-labeled products ready to go to individual destinations. By pushing the order picking back to the supplier, delivery time is reduced by 50 percent, giving products an increased shelf life and making them available for longer to supermarket customers.  

By separating the placing of products in trays from the labelling, Westvlees has also increased its machinery utilization by 30 to 50 percent.  

Prepared for the future with automation  

The flexibility provided by the automated system enables Westvlees to respond quickly to customized orders, picking and labelling products and ensuring that they are delivered to the right destinations.  

Goderis feels the robot-based packing system has prepared the company for the future, including processing orders placed via the internet: “The system has given us the ability to process complete orders in much less time. With this improved performance we are now ready for e-commerce.” 

By ensuring that each product is correctly picked, labelled and dispatched, the system will also help Westvlees to deliver a high quality service to its customers.  

“The robotic solution offers high quality, it’s impeccable – that’s what we want, to deliver high quality products at all times. Customers demand top quality labelling and thanks to ABB we can offer that service to our clients.” 


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