20 Years of OPM Automation

22nd November 2023

Logistics Business20 Years of OPM Automation

The revolution in food retail logistics began in Parkstein in 2003. Today, the OPM system is the world’s most successful fully automated logistics and order picking system for cases. It all started with a cake lifter.

The story of WITRON’s Order Picking Machinery system (OPM) begins at Walter Winkler’s coffee table in Parkstein. The breakthrough came with a cake and a cake server from the WITRON founder. The COM – the heart of the OPM system was born. Just as a cake lifter glides under the piece of cake, the COM moves under the items to be picked and uses them to load pallets and roll containers for the food retailers’ stores fully automatically, product-gently, store-friendly, and without errors. “We have a factory for the production of store pallets,” says Frédéric Pinier-Rafer from E.LECLERC Socara proudly. The OPM system celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2023. Almost 100 OPM systems are in operation today, supplying more than 35,000 stores and 100 million consumers in North America, Europe, and Australia every day.

Helmut Prieschenk, CEO of WITRON, and Karl Högen, CEO of WITRON North America, agree that the OPM was a revolution for the food retail industry. “That was Walter Winkler’s masterpiece,” says Prieschenk. Högen remembers: “Back then, I was working in sales at the Logistikhof. When the solution was first presented to the company, I thought: What a brilliant idea. This is going to be great!”

Today, Prieschenk and Högen are primarily focused on the business development in the various WITRON sales regions and look back to the first projects. “The pilot customer and the impetus for the development of the OPM system came via the food retailer KROGER from the US.” But the Europeans quickly followed. The first OPM logistics centres in Europe were built for MERCADONA in Spain and EDEKA in Germany.

The initial situation is hardly any different to today. “For many retailers, issues such as lack of personnel and high staff fluctuation were already a major challenge in their conventional warehouses back then”, says Högen. “Not surprising,” according to Prieschenk. “Millions of tons of food were moved by human hands. Employees had to bend down, lift, and carry heavy loads. That is already challenging and no fun in the dry food sector – and even less so in the fresh and frozen food environment.”

The workplaces in the distribution centres became more attractive thanks to the OPM system. “The new machines were proudly presented to the relatives at the family’s day,” Högen remembers the first system that was implemented in Phoenix, Arizona. Customers needed 60 percent less staff in the warehouse and, thanks to the automated production of load carriers, transport costs were reduced by more than 10 percent, and the time required to put items away in the stores was also reduced by double-digits. “The pallet is built store-friendly – individually according to the layout of the respective store. It only needs to be handled once in the store. It can directly be used to replenish the shelves or is sent to the back room,” explains Högen. In addition, there is less food waste due to damaged goods during transportation or unpacking. Thanks to new packaging technologies in the OPM system, the store managers and their staff members also have to dispose of less wrapping. “The OPM solution is integrated end-to-end into the customer’s processes – economically, ecologically, and socially,” he adds.

“The decisive factor is not to have an idea for an innovation,” emphasizes Prieschenk, “but to successfully implement this idea in practical use. That is exactly WITRON’s strength. We get systems up and running! Regardless of the size and complexity of the task.” With OPM, it is now possible to pick more than 95 percent of the product scope of a full-range retailer (dry, fresh, and frozen) fully automatically and store-friendly in aisle sequence onto pallets or roll containers, largely without the need for personnel.

EDEKA was one of the first customers to use the OPM system. Thomas Kerkenhoff who was responsible for logistics at EDEKA Rhein-Ruhr-Stiftung back then, has a concrete opinion on this. “There is no competitor solution on the market that can handle more than 10,000 different items fully automatically as efficiently as the WITRON system.” The manager is sure: “In order to operate a facility successfully and economically in the long-term, you need a particularly good team both at your logistics partner and on site that is constantly working on the enhancement of the mechanical components and the software. But this only works if you also have a partner who has already implemented a large number of systems in the industry worldwide, and thus has extensive experience, expertise, and references. If I invest money, then the system must be able to map my business model also in 25 years’ time – but at the same time it must also be able to flexibly adapt to new basic conditions and business processes. That is what I expect as a customer.” And this is what the OPM system is able to achieve – now in its fifth generation.

“Our systems grow with the customer. The challenge in a project is that we receive figures at the beginning of the project design phase that can change again during the implementation phase. And when markets change, the situation is often completely different.” For example, we had to quickly integrate efficient e-commerce processes for customers in the logistics centres that were originally designed purely for store delivery. The number of items changes, the volume varies, the order lines adapt, and more distribution channels are added. “We always have the goal in mind, primarily a high level of customer service, see logistics from the end customer’s perspective in the store or at home, and analyse developments”, explains Prieschenk, who has the advantage that WITRON supplies markets worldwide with its solutions, knows the processes in food retail down to the last detail, and recognizes developments on other continents faster than others.

High availability thanks to solid mechanics

The success of the OPM system is also based on the system’s design. “Mechanics has always been simple and thus solid, hardly prone to errors, and easy to maintain. The result is high system availability, 24/7. The software, the stacking algorithm takes care of the complexity”, emphasizes Helmut Prieschenk. Word spread quickly in the industry. Matt Swindells from Coles and his team travelled from Australia to the USA and Europe, saw various systems and his comment was: “This is like Tetris on steroids.” He then ordered the OPM system for his company’s sites in Brisbane and Sydney. More than 2,000 see freight containers made their way to down under. The WITRON staff travelled ahead by plane.

However, WITRON is not only responsible for the technology, but also ensures a permanently high availability of the system with well-trained personnel. “This has opened up a completely new business model for us. More than 4,000 staff members are currently working for us in the areas of service, maintenance, and system operation on site at our customers’ distribution centres”, says Prieschenk. For WITRON, service means that the customers can concentrate on their core business thanks to our technicians. WITRON’s successful OnSite team model was born at SPAR in Wels in 1998. The highly dynamic processes in an automated logistics centre demanded new answers from WITRON at that time. Back then, six technicians took care of the system. In the meantime, the facility has grown many times over in terms of footprint and throughput – and with it the service team. Today, there are 120 staff members working in multiple shifts ensuring smooth processes with regard to mechanics and IT – automation creates attractive workplaces. “It is not the number of employees in an on-site team that is decisive, but rather their extensive skills, their great commitment, as well as the scope of tasks, for which the WITRON experts take responsibility”, explains Prieschenk.

Current challenge: Intelligent networks

And WITRON is not running out of work. Customers want to build new facilities, but also realize brownfield projects with the OPM system. The OPM system works economically and highly efficiently in the dry, fresh, and frozen food sector – regardless of whether it is a new or existing building. But there are new tasks for the developers at WITRON. The story of the OPM system continues to be told, they say in Parkstein. The requirements for intra-logistics have changed and the OPM system has mastered the market changes – from pure store supply to omni-channel centres.

“We have solved the issue of automated piece and case picking, optimized flow-through logistics centres, implemented ugly items into the automated process, and are now continuing to think one step further – beyond consolidation”, promises Högen. Intelligent networks are the actual challenge. Now, not only the logistics centres, but the entire supply chains of the customers are to become efficient.” Our goal is to integrate all horizontal and vertical players of an omni-channel network: suppliers, logistics centre, transportation. This also includes the different distribution channels: store, home delivery, click & collect, drives. It is therefore important to create an efficient end-to-end retail platform, where silos are avoided, where all hubs permanently communicate with and optimize each other,” concludes Prieschenk, looking into the future. “WITRON’s success is a combination of our corporate culture, technical expertise, and domain knowledge, the two managers agree. Walter Winkler would say: We simply know our way around.”