Pietsch Wholesale Plumbing Supplies

A brilliant solution: Voice-driven Lean-Lift® cluster for clever storage

The individual components of the intralogistics concept at the modern warehouse and distribution center of plumbing wholesaler Pietsch in Ahaus, Germany, are intelligently orchestrated to deliver maximum efficiency. For example, when it comes to picking small items to fill orders, the containers in six voice-controlled Hänel vertical storage systems automatically bring the items to the access point for retrieval. All of these automated Lean-Lift® systems are remotely operated in a cluster supported by an innovative warehouse management system. The picking processes for a shipping order are performed on three vertical storage systems running simultaneously. This saves enormous amounts of time when preparing orders for shipment.

The Pietsch Group is one of the leading wholesalers serving the plumbing, heating, ventilation, environmental protection and roofing industries in Germany. Pietsch continues to grow its business and maintains 60 sites and 23 “bath design galleries” in North Rhine-Westphalia, Lower Saxony and Saxony, with some 1,000 employees responding to the needs of professional craftsmen. At three regional warehouse centers employees rely on the latest storage technologies and voice-driven picking systems to retrieve items from the company’s enormous inventory – some 3,500,000 picks are performed annually – 44,000 different items are in stock. Pietsch operates its own fleet of more than 100 trucks to deliver orders to craftsmen every day.

Modern building extension for the distribution center in Ahaus

The construction of a new shipping and warehouse addition to the distribution center in Ahaus more than doubled the space available for storage. The various sections of the warehouse are organized according to the type of items in stock and turnover frequency – there is a high-bay area as well as a wide-aisle section, both of which are supported by forklift trucks, plus a rack shelving solution and six vertical lift systems. Employees work in two shifts every day to pick some 7,500 order items which are shipped and delivered to customers by truck. Mobile data capture devices, forklift guidance systems and voice-driven picking systems all play key roles in the intralogistics processes. Finally, during the night shift, the extremely heterogeneous products that have been picked – ranging from fittings and bathtubs to pipes and solar modules – are checked and securely loaded on approx. 40 delivery trucks.

As part of the extension project, Pietsch also installed a seamless and paperless end-to-end IT-driven warehouse management system. “Using carefully maintained inventory master data, the new WMS is used to scan items arriving at the receiving dock so that they can be immediately assigned storage locations in the warehouse,” explains Christian Ehler, IT logistics manager. And warehouse manager Dirk Schlüter says: “The processes recorded in the IT system in real time guarantee a high level of inventory transparency and item availability for the remarkable range of some 28,000 items that we always have in stock here in Ahaus.”

Customer orders and shipping orders are collated in the WMS so that the requested items stored in the various warehouse sections can be reserved for shipment. At the same time, the WMS optimizes the picking process for each order to keep the number of pick operations as low as possible while also making sure that as many items as possible are picked from the various warehouse sections.

Brilliant Lean-Lift® cluster solution

Six Hänel Lean-Lift® systems were installed to store fittings, screws and seals. The Hänel lifts measure 12 meters in height and are installed next to each other to form a cluster that supports parallel order picking. Each lift is equipped with a MP12N-HostCom microprocessor controller for direct integration in the cluster and in the WMS via dedicated interface. Two order pickers can simultaneously operate three automated Lean-Lift® systems via voice control from their positions at the retrieval points on the upper floor of the warehouse.

The system contains the specific master data for all small items in stock. Based on an analysis of this data, two types of bins were defined in the WMS so that each system container can provide spaces for 48 or 24. Since each lift can have 3,000 storage position spaces, the entire cluster solution can provide a total of 18,000 storage positions.

A light curtain in each Hänel Lean-Lift® ensures vertical height optimization for all containers. This compact solution provides some 1,000 square meters of storage space for 18,000 storage positions within a small footprint, including bout 100 square meters of access space, thus reducing the amount of valuable floor space needed for warehouse storage.

Clever voice-driven order picking

To ensure fast picking for shipping orders, the WMS automatically sends drive commands to the microprocessor controller of the storage systems. The picking process begins immediately as the storage lifts transport the containers to the retrieval access points. As the containers arrive, LED indicators show order pickers where items are located on the containers. The Pick-o-Light®-Vario systems shine beams of light on the requested items to make identification easier. Order pickers receive spoken instructions via headsets comprised of earphones and microphones. When the job has been completed, the order picker uses the microphone to confirm the retrieval process. The result is fast and smooth order picking, without any lists, keyboard input or barcode scanners which could slow the overall process.

Each job confirmation also starts the drive commands for the next job so that the containers can be transported to the access point without delay. Dirk Schlüter says: “The Pick-by-Voice system has proven its worth many times over. Thanks to the ingenious process optimization based on remote operations from the WMS, there are virtually no waiting times. As is generally the case, not only are slow-moving inventory items stored in the Hänel Lean-Lift® systems, but also goods with a high turnover – this is possible with the intelligent WMS. Each order picker is able to complete more than 100 picks per hour. With the intelligent system working in the background, long with the overall ease of use, order pickers learn how to use the storage systems very quickly. The automation results in outstanding productivity.”