Automation as a collaborative experience

Gray delivery boxes move in rapid succession along the conveyor belt high above our heads, as if they are chasing each other along a giant toy racetrack. As if by magic, they are automatically loaded to the brim with precisely counted bottles of shampoo and sun lotion, toiletries, sweets, herbs and spices. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be an employee in sight at Meijer’s distribution center in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Before each article rapidly moves through the warehouse, they are delivered by forklift on pallets and ‘decanted’ - unpacked and sorted for storage, explains Ed Vance, a regional account manager at KION brand Dematic. At the end of the process, the Aisle Ready Tote system (ART) requires only a fraction of the employees previously needed to fill the ‘totes’ with the necessary articles so that they are ‘aisle-ready’ for supermarkets. Between 90,000 and 150,000 items can be processed every day, six days a week in a 3-shift operation.

Humans are needed once again when the automated system feeds totes from the AS/RS into several short conveyor belts. The warehouse staff scans the tote label, prompting the system software to illuminate the store totes with open demand for the items. The store totes have a barcode that corresponds to the relevant aisle in the supermarket that has ordered replenishments. The benefit is that staff at Meijer supermarket receive a pre-sorted delivery and can quickly restock the shelves with the missing articles, which are grouped together depending on the department where they are sold: there might be three pots of oregano for the herbs shelf, or five tubes of mascara for the cosmetics department. One of the major benefits of the ART system is that it stores the supermarket ‘in-stock’ business metric for all items served by ART high. The stores and merchandising team value this in-stock metric because it generates top line revenue.

"We are excited about the synergies between Dematic and KION with its traditional material handling equipment"

Mike Graham

Senior Vice President, Supply Chain and Manufacturing, Meijer

Dematic developed ART in close collaboration with Meijer. The hardware and software are tailored to the specific requirements of the business and are continually refined. The successful partnership started out as collaboration between neighbours: both companies have their roots in Michigan.

Meijer, which was founded in the 1930s by Dutch Immigrant Hendrik Meijer, is a multibillion dollar retailer that ranks among the 20 largest private companies in the USA, according to US magazine Forbes. This family business is credited with having founded the concept of the ‘supercentre’, where customers can find everything from groceries and medicines to car-related products under one roof. The company runs 230 supercentres in Michigan and in the neighbouring states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Wisconsin. The stores receive replenishment deliveries every other day, says Mike Graham, Senior Vice President Supply Chain and Manufacturing.

Dematic plays an important role here, particularly when it comes to storing more and more items in a diminishing area of available space: the warehouse previously required around 11,000 sqm (118,000 sq. ft.) of floor space, whereas Meijer now needs just about 4,600 sqm. for the same amount of goods. And plans are already underway for more automation. “We want to extend ART and so we have just added two lines to the six existing ones. And we expect to continue growing in the next few years,” explains Mike Graham, who is looking forward to collaborating with KION Group in the future.

“We are excited seeing the synergies between Dematic and KION with its traditional material handling equipment,” he says. “Hopefully, more investment will be made which will bring about new opportunities for automating the supply and distributing the goods.”


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