Bilstein group defies Brexit with logistics

Ferdinand Bilstein and WITRON have realized a state-of-the-art spare parts distribution center in the UK

The bilstein group logistics center in Markham Vale UK with a size of 19,000 square meters / 204,500 square feet..

While competitors partially retracted from the British market following the Brexit vote, the German company Ferdinand Bilstein invested in the region and the supply processes for its customers. A new logistics center was built in the geographical center of England under the umbrella of the bilstein group. More than 50,000 different products are stored here. Those customers who order by 5:30 pm, receive their parts the next day. Same-day collections are also possible. Paul Dodgson, Operations Director at Ferdinand Bilstein UK and Felix Wortmann, Project Manager Logistics Planning at Ferdinand Bilstein Germany explain how the company reacts to Brexit and why automation is the big winner in England.

What did you do on June 23, 2016, the day of the Brexit referendum? Paul Dodgson and Felix Wortmann planned the new logistics center during this month; together with Ulrich Schlosser from WITRON. “We actually wanted to settle down in the South of England in order to supply both the UK and the continent with febi, SWAG and Blue Print automotive replacement parts in the future”, explains Felix Wortmann. The Brexit, however, took Ferdinand Bilstein and the logistics team to the geographical center of England, the industrial heart of the island.
The originally planned supply of the continent such as delivering supplies to France or Spain was no longer feasible after the Brexit decision in the south of the island. In Markham Vale, in the close proximity to the larger cities of Manchester, Sheffield, and Nottingham - bilstein group has been operating a 19,000 square meter / 204,500 square feet distribution center supplying the UK market since 2018. “We have centralized our logistics operations in Markham Vale. Before we supplied our UK customers from two distribution centers, one in the north, the other in the south of England. Operations were quite complex as the parts have been stored in separated warehouses within the sites. Consolidation of ready-to-ship pallets and packages was time and effort consuming. Now we ship all brands from one site”, says Wortmann.

WITRON's delivery and performance scope includes the design and realization of all material flows, IT, control, warehouse management, and mechanical components. The conveyor technology and stacker cranes were designed and produced by WITRON's subsidiary, FAS. A WITRON OnSite team is located directly at the site to take care of the entire system service and maintenance in the long run. 

Corporations instead of repair shops

The market for automotive car and truck replacement parts in the United Kingdom has changed considerably in recent years. “We no longer have the tiny repair shop with the owner stocking a few boxes of spare parts. Our customers order less at once, but more frequently and ever later than before. Those customers who order by 5:30 pm, receive their parts the next day. Our tiny repair shops have become chains with investors, shareholders and supply chain experts.
Our customers’ demands range from 24-hour service to same-day delivery. Logistics has become increasingly important in our market. It is no longer the “dirty dark side” of business. We know that and our customers do too”, is how Paul Dodgson sums up the situation. On peak days, this means more than 2,200 packages and over 800 dispatch modules that are picked from the automated small parts warehouse (AS/RS) using pick-to-tote according to the goods-to-person principle. “This corresponds to 38,000 orderlines with a total of 152,000 pick units”. At 11 pick workstations with downstream packing workstations, the picked orders are prepared for dispatch in cartons or in dispatch modules. 

Inhomogeneous product range

More than 50,000 different items are stored in Markham Vale. Due to this broad and inhomogeneous product range in the automotive replacement parts business - the logistics center consists of an automated and a manual logistics area. 

The automated section in Markham Vale strongly resembles the bilstein group logistics center in Ennepetal. There too, the Order Picking System (OPS) from WITRON is implemented as the central logistics element. OPS is an integration of an automated small parts warehouse (AS/RS), a distribution loop, and upstream ergonomic picking workstations. More than 90% of bilstein group’s entire order volume is handled here.

The items are provided in the OPS according to the goods-to-person principle for order-related and sequential picking. The picker is guided seamlessly through the entire process by means of terminal dialogues. Integrated sequence buffers decouple the provision of source totes by stacker cranes from the picking process. The OPS enables storage and order picking in one system. In addition to serial 1:1 picking, parallel picking into several order totes or directly into the customer carton would also be possible. This flexibility is much appreciated by companies in the vehicle parts distribution sector, as it enables a combination of store, repair shop, and E-Commerce business.

The heart of the manual logistics area is the narrow aisle pallet warehouse with more than 10,000 pallet storage locations and integrated cantilever racks with an additional 720 storage locations. “This is where we mainly store heavy and large-volume items”, explains Dodgson. Narrow aisle stackers and a WITRON radio-frequency system support the employees with route-optimized order picking. The manual warehouse - just like the OPS system - is controlled via a multi-functional WITRON WMS.

Role model Ennepetal

For many years, Ferdinand Bilstein has been operating a highly dynamic logistics center at its German headquarters in Ennepetal, which was also designed and realized by WITRON. On a peak day, the logistics center picks more than 92,000 orderlines from an assortment of 50,000 products, which are supplied to 170+ countries around the world. More than 100 million parts stored in 227,000 tote locations and 72,000 pallet locations are ready to be shipped nationally and internationally. A WITRON Onsite team, consisting of 15 staff members, takes care of service and maintenance of all components and processes in a three-shift-operation and thus guarantees a constantly high system availability. They are also responsible for maintenance and facility management tasks.

“We decided in favor of WITRON because we are very satisfied with our plant in Germany and we wanted to set up the logistics processes in Markham Vale in a similar way, even though the overall level of automation is not quite as extensive as in Ennepetal”, explains Felix Wortmann.

In Markham Vale, the AS/RS comprises 215,000 tote storage locations spread over twelve aisles. The WITRON technicians are proud that the impressive throughput values can be achieved thanks to the AS/RS equipment with one stacker crane each including a double load handling device for the handling of four totes at the same time as well as a double loop solution. 

Other important work areas for packing such as workstations in the product-packing department (reboxing) and the kitting department were also integrated into the overall concept and are supplied and disposed of by the WITRON system. These kitting areas are scalable and therefore flexibly expandable in the future. “Despite Brexit, our goal is to further expand”, says Dodgson, looking to the future.   

As in Ennepetal, the company has decided to also integrate a WITRON OnSite team in the UK. Since the distribution center in Markham Vale is about one-third of the size of the one in Germany in terms of throughput and footprint, six technicians ensure a smooth material flow in a 1.5-shift operation.

Automation benefits from the Brexit

“Following the Brexit decision, our competitors cut back their logistics capacities in England.  We are still here”, Dodgson adds proudly and smiles. However, the Brexit still concerns him and his colleagues. “At the moment, the share of manual logistics centers in England is still very high.  But that will change”, Dodgson is convinced. “Automation will benefit greatly, we will have to further automate processes, pursue Data Mining to gain more knowledge about our processes and our customers because it is already difficult for us to find well-trained and motivated people. Ulrich Schlosser from WITRON agrees. “It is very difficult to find automation experts in England”.

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