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Vitaqua – maximised performance in mineral-water loading operations

Rainer Baumann *

Breuna – situated in the middle of Germany, not far from Kassel – is the new third production facility for mineral water and soft drinks of the bottlers Altmühltaler Mineralbrunnen GmbH. The group supplies the retailers in wide areas of Germany from its plant in Treuchtlingen, from the Baruther Urstromquelle spring on the outskirts of the Spreewald region in the east of Germany and now also from its bottling facility in Breuna. Altmühltaler's recipe for success is non-returnable PET for the discount supermarkets, which has gained the company a place among the country's Top 10 bottlers of non-alcoholic beverages.

With its new plant in Breuna – for the Vitaqua brand –, the firm's management has implemented an ideal layout for beverage bottling. As the group's contractor, Krones AG completed a greenfield turnkey plant incorporating four bottling lines, each rated at 43,200 bottles an hour. In addition to the entire process technology, plus the complete bottling line, including stretch blow-moulders and the packing and palletising equipment, the plant's logistics were another highlight in this project. With a high-bay warehouse boasting 51,000 slots for europallets, a storage speed of 635 pallets an hour and a retrieval capacity of 709 pallets an hour, fast and effective dispatch has become a tangible reality here. The ideal layout for the delivery traffic of raw materials and supplies and empty pallets, and – separately – for loading the pallets of fulls knows only one goal: speeding things up.

The number of trips is what counts

“Normally, we schedule 35 minutes per truck, from the moment it enters our premises until it leaves them again. You see, it's only through fast unloading and loading procedures that more trips can be made in short-distance hauls. And for our discount-supermarket customers this is a crucial aspect to be considered when ordering. And for our contractors, too, this is a vital cost-efficiency factor. We don't have a single

* SST Factory Planning Technology, Krones AG, Neutraubling, Germany
Tel:: +49 9401 70 1981

forwarding agent; we place our orders directly with regional forwarding agents, whom we pay per trip under a transportation agreement”, is how Winfried Assmann, the Logistics Manager for the entire group, describes his firm's strategic focus in regard to the concept pursued for its logistical operations. Utilising to the full the time available for deliveries to the retailers, between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m., thus making sure they are supplied to optimum effect with the additional quantities of PET containers they need – this was the declared goal of all the logistics manager's work when it came to planning the new plant.

In the dispatch area, measuring around 3,850 m², you can observe how closely the internal and external process sequences intermesh. An electric overhead conveyor system (EOC) with 14 vehicles supplies the ramp area with the goods ordered for the individual trips. The EOC vehicles, each with two load holders, accept the Düsseldorfer pallets unloaded from the europallet they've been travelling on, and place the pallets of fulls on heavy-duty roller conveyors, the delivery tracks. Each of the four order-picking tracks per gate supplies two trucks. 66 Düsseldorfer pallets with 1.5-l packs, or 60 pallets holding 0.5-l bottles, make for maximum utilisation of a 24.5-ton semi-trailer's dimensions and gross loading capacities. 16 truck gates with loading bridges are used to load the goods onto the lorries as quickly and efficiently as possible. And the Logistics Manager has kept all his options open here: “We can load goods onto all types of vehicle. Thanks to rear-loading, for example, walking-floor vehicles, megaliners, refrigeration trucks or also tarpaulin trucks can all be served – there are no restrictions for us here.”

Closely intermeshed sequences

The goods for the trips registered in the order records are placed in readiness on the loading tracks, in line with a time schedule drawn up beforehand. A display panel shows the order number, so that each consignment can be unambiguously assigned to one order. As soon as the forwarding agent notifies Vitaqua of his imminent arrival while specifying his vehicle's number-plate, the order number in the display is replaced by the truck's number-plate. So each and every driver can see at first glance the consignment and loading track assigned to him. When the truck arrives at the firm's main gate, the forwarding agent is given permission to enter the premises – in the shape of a transponder card required for opening the barriers, printing out the delivery note and concluding the loading operation. An SMS automatically generated by the warehouse management computer, sent to the driver's mobile, calls the truck in for loading. The request to deliver its empty pallets to Gate 1-6 and then to proceed to the predefined ramp for loading the pallets of fulls clears the truck for entry. At the same time “we enable withdrawal at the scheduled order-picking track”, is how Winfried Assmann describes the procedures involved, “because this is the only way to ensure that the driver collects precisely the consignment meant for him and doesn't help himself at another order-picking track by mistake.” Acceptance of the empty pallets is acknowledged by a warehouse employee using a hand-held terminal, so that the data in question can already be assigned to the order number involved, thus making sure that empty-pallet accounting can be handed over to the driver together with the dispatch documents. The loading process starts when the order-picking track is enabled: now the driver can take delivery of the pallets. Swift procedures are assured by handling 4 Düsseldorfer pallets at a time with long-fork conveying trucks and by the heavy-duty roller conveyor enabling the following pallets to move up automatically once the frontmost four pallets have been removed.

Benefiting from the forwarding agents' experience

Depending on the local conditions involved and the trip plan concerned, each driver himself uses a long-fork or short-fork double-discharge conveying truck and, depending on the local conditions involved and the trip plan concerned, can load the consignments for more than one supermarket onto his truck. All the areas and radii planned in the loading area have been accurately matched to the conveying trucks' mobility, so there's no need to demand unnecessary marshalling from the approximately 300 forwarding agents working for Vitaqua. “Here, it's down to the drivers themselves to speed things up. Drawing on the experience gained in Baruth – where we were able to test out quite a lot of things – we knew exactly what the ideal procedural sequences have to look like, so as to obtain maximised speed advantages”, is how Winfried Assmann describes the basic considerations governing the planning work. In the planning office, the transponder card is then used again: by checking the card in the card-reader a comparison is run: does the order-picking track report “empty”? Has the order been reported back to the warehouse management system? Only if this is the case can the delivery note be printed out. Unambiguous assignment of the pallet data and the data for the order-picking tracks with the link to the order data permits Vitaqua to locate the pallets delivered to the individual supermarkets reliably and accurately at any time.

While one order is being completed in the planning office, the driver of the next truck, whose consignment is being held in readiness on Track 2 at this loading gate, is already being sent an SMS, asking him to enter the courtyard, and in his turn deliver the empty pallets, so as to dock onto the soon-to-be-free ramp. You can't get faster than that.

All steps complete?

Of course, numerous check mechanisms have been integrated into the whole of this procedural sequence. Winfried Assmann reports: “If, for example, the planning office forgets to cancel the transponder card, the truck driver is stuck in front of the barriers, unable to get out, so you see it is always ensured at any time that no step in the sequence has been omitted.

If the driver in question has his dispatch papers there with him, the gate can cancel the card. But if the driver cannot present the delivery note, he has to go back to the planning office to conclude his loading operation properly there. Nobody can leave our premises, who has not completed all the steps in the sequence. And – believe me – mistakes like this only happen to the drivers once.” And possible crashes during loading, damage to pallets of fulls caused during marshalling every now and again have also been factored in. An express track amidst the order-picking tracks is provided for this eventuality. Faulty pallets are rejected and replaced by new ones ordered retrospectively and supplied via the express track. A replacement order of this kind enjoys top priority in the material flow computer, so that the pallet concerned will have been retrieved from the high-bay warehouse within about seven minutes.

Elements for perfect procedural sequences

Winfried Assmann has inputted the entire fund of his experience in beverage logistics into the planning work for the new plant: “We started thinking about a new plant three years ago. It was then that I went and had a good, hard look at certain components in Baruth, asking myself what was amenable to improvement so as to obtain ideal procedural sequences.” Doing without fork-lift-truck traffic, using the electric overhead conveyor system for dispatching the production output, and for storage and retrieval, the heavy-duty roller conveyors for the Düsseldorfer pallets, managing as they do without drives and based solely on starting and braking rollers, relocating the reception of empty pallets away from the loading area and planning the latter with two order-picking tracks for each loading gate – these factors taken together constitute the foundations for maximised dispatch efficiency. “With 16 gates and 64 loading tracks and with two-shift loading over 16 hours, plus the excess capacity incorporated in our high-bay warehouse, we can handle up to 400 vehicles a day here, enabling us to supply the retailers with the quantities they request,” is how Winfried Assmann neatly sums up the advantages involved.

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