For Belgian retail giant, Colruyt, its Cimcorp robotic order picking system has clocked up no less than 13 years of operation and—revitalized by a retrofit in 2015—is set to keep running until 2021.

Rising volumes of fresh produce prompted Colruyt to install an automated materials handling solution at its distribution center in Halle, a city 20 km (approx. 12.5 miles) south of Brussels, in 2005. The project was one of the first installations of Cimcorp’s MultiPick solution in the retail industry. The system underwent rigorous testing to ensure it could handle fresh fruit and vegetable distribution.

Jens Heyvaert, Reliability Engineer for Colruyt, explains, "At that time, this was a revolutionary approach—a totally new and highly efficient method for order picking of fresh produce crates.”

Simplicity

The solution proved to be ideal, both in terms of reducing the physical strain on warehouse staff and in reducing handling costs. “With the Cimcorp system, we can process higher volumes for a given number of workers. When the system was installed back in 2005, the improvement in working conditions was huge, as staff no longer needed to lift and carry heavy trays."

"Despite the speed of operation,” continues Heyvaert, “the robots handle the products gently, which is an important factor for fruit and vegetables, many of which are susceptible to bruising. And, the robotic system takes care of the complete storage and picking process—all we need to do is introduce the stores’ orders and pallets of produce. It couldn’t be simpler.”

Increasing volumes

The longevity of Colruyt’s Cimcorp system is all the more impressive in the context of the company’s evolving material handling needs. Originally running over two shifts, five days a week, operations at Colruyt’s Halle facility were ramped up to 24 hours a day, six days a week, within just a few years. “Between 2004 and 2010, we experienced an increase in volume from 8 million to 14 million trays a year,” says Heyvaert.

Retrofit project

With intensive use, signs of strain began to show in the robotic picking system so Colruyt decided to plan a retrofit project with Cimcorp. “The installation had been very reliable but in the few years running up to 2015, we started experiencing an increase in maintenance costs,” explains Heyvaert. “The installation also showed visual signs of aging. It wasn’t surprising, as the system had already been working hard for a decade.”

The upgrade program included the refitting of all control boxes, operating panels and servomotors. Further, the beams required roughening. Asked whether the retrofit project met Colruyt’s needs, Heyvaert is unequivocal.

“Definitely, as the automation is now running without any major issues and the system meets our requirements perfectly with regard to our ever-increasing volumes. Compared to other technical equipment that I manage, the order picker needs little attention. Consequently, maintenance time and cost are quite low. The retrofit has extended the expected lifespan of the system until 2021.”

Established in 1928 by Franz Colruyt, the Colruyt business was originally a wholesaler of dry goods, such as coffee, salt and sugar. Today, Franz’s grandson, Jef Colruyt, stands at the helm of the retail giant, which now includes 234 supermarket stores across Belgium. The Colruyt Group as a whole employs over 29,000 people and operates a large number of brands across Belgium, France and Luxembourg.

Author Heidi Scott

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