Automation drives
next generation
distribution centres

Supermarket warehouses just got a lot more exciting, with the world’s largest and most high-tech kitchen pantry coming soon to Australia.

Can you imagine it? Self-guided forklifts zooming down narrow aisles, feeding pallets of products into a colossal 15-storey rack system that stretches up towards the warehouse ceiling, laden with inventory. A large robotic head automatically places cartons into trays that are whisked away to the other end of the warehouse by a high speed conveyor and sorting system. An articulated robot then assembles the perfect order by picking cartons from these trays, ready to load onto trucks and out to stores.

It’s not a glimpse into the future; it’s a real-life scenario that UQ mechatronics graduate Dr Michael Lucas daydreams about as he solves the daily problems encountered on his latest project.

Automation is changing the way traditional warehouses operate, and it begins with distribution centres across the global supply chain. E-fulfilment centres and centralised distribution centres are emerging at lightning speed across the world as companies seek to maximise their capacity to process goods while enhancing order accuracy.

Automated materials-handling equipment, high-speed conveyor systems and robotic applications are key, but, as always, size is too.

Dr Lucas is working on a distribution centre that combines technologies from the traditional logistics industry with those from manufacturing, parcel and postal systems to create Australia’s – actually, the world’s – largest automated grocery distribution centre.

The result for Woolworths is a system with at least twice the size and capacity of similar operations concurrently being built by European retailers. It will handle over 13,000 different products, run 24-hours per day, seven days a week and will provide the bulk of all ambient grocery needs (items that can be stored at room temperature) for Woolworths stores in Victoria. The new facility will be able to house more than Woolworths’ Brisbane and Sydney distribution centres combined.

As Distribution Centre Design Manager for the Woolworths Group, Dr Lucas's focus is on the testing and network integration of the $350-million distribution centre in south-east Melbourne. He is working to optimise the software and automation systems that will prepare orders for distribution, acknowledging their vital role in the facility’s success.

The brain of the system is the software. Its capabilities extend to customising what goes on each truck to match the specific needs of the store it is delivering to, and configures the automation and robotics to provide product in the appropriate sequence.

Beyond the extremely advanced technical capability of the systems being rolled out in the centre, the sheer size of the facility is also breathtaking. At its highest point, the automated storage section of the facility is 45 metres above ground-level, and it contains over 14 kilometres of conveyors and 2000 tonnes of steel.

Due to the scale and complexity of the site, it needs approximately 18 months of testing between installation and go-live. To make this a reality, teams of engineers, technicians and tradespeople on-site in Melbourne, in project offices in Sydney and in development offices in Veghel (Netherlands), Dortmund (Germany) as well as Serbia and India will work together to complete this phase of the project. The company has said that this is the largest single investment in infrastructure in Woolworths history and it is expected to deliver significant safety, efficiency and productivity.

The relative size of the Woolworth regional distribution centre that Dr Michael Lucas is working on.

Image: Woolworths Melbourne South regional distribution centre under construction (courtesy of Woolworths).