Pharmaceuticals distribution centre with 170,000 picks per day

High-end logistics centre

The Merckle/Ratiopharm pharmaceuticals group recently built a logistics centre at its Ulm/Donautal location. This highly automated facility is Germany’s leading pharmaceutical distribution centre with an output of about 1000 pallets and 170,000 picks per day. The heart of the logistics centre is a high-bay warehouse with six automatic S/R machines and five picking cars. There are 23,000 tray spaces for static fine picking in the order-picking hall and 2,400 spaces for dynamic fine picking.

The new distribution centre will increase the efficiency and improve the accuracy of Merckle/Ratiopharm’s supplies to its customers. In contrast to conventional pallet warehouses, the plant constructed by Siemens L&A as general contractor provides optimized and flexible order-picking. Both individual mail items and large packing drums can be quickly put together and dispatched as needed in the distribution centre. Items received directly from the adjoining Production department and items delivered from external suppliers arrive on euro pallets in the high-bay warehouse (HBW), which has 28,000 storage bins. There, they are automatically stored double-depth by six S/R machines. The high-bay warehouse is designed so that there is always a supply aisle alongside a picking aisle, where operators on manually controlled picking cars retrieve original boxes directly from the stored pallets. The storage bin and the number of boxes needed are radioed to the operator on a display. After retrieval, the operator attaches a barcode label to each box, so that it can be traced to its destination. It is then loaded directly from the work table onto the continuous conveyor integrated in the picking car. This completes the picking process for the operator, who can travel immediately to the next retrieval location to deal with other orders. Conveyor belts permanently installed in the rack aisles take the marked boxes directly from the continuous conveyor on the picking car and transport them to the head of the rack structure, where they are collected and forwarded to the order-picking hall.

Directly behind the high-bay warehouse, the various original boxes are automatically aligned and placed on plastic trays, ensuring that the valuable articles are safely and gently handled in the downstream areas of the plant. Original boxes to be shipped as complete boxes are sent directly to Dispatch, whereas those intended for a mixed order with other drugs go to the Transit Warehouse (TW).
Automation reduces manual work
Working efficiency in the Transit Warehouse, which is responsible for fine picking, is supported by a pick-to-light system (PTL) in the nine picking aisles. Four automatic S/R machines push the trays bearing the original boxes into 2700 slightly inclined flow-through racks. These racks then roll towards the work aisle, where they remain inclined at an ergonomic angle until they are picked. Each flow-through rack has a capacity of six trays. They are continually restocked, so that employees always have access to adequate stocks.
The illuminated displays of the PTL system clearly indicate to the operator how many packets of a drug must be taken from which rack for a particular order. A conveyor track integrated in the work aisle keeps the order boxes on a tray ready for filling. A machine that folds prefabricated cardboard cutouts makes these boxes at a central location close to where the order starts.
One special feature of the plant is a precise check weigher linked to the PTL system, which weighs the order boxes on a mobile weighing unit after each filling process. The higher-level computer system assigns a precise weight to each retrieval process. Automatic monitoring of the picking quality prevents packing errors. Weighing is initiated by each acknowledgement of the PTL system. The system usually operates sequentially, in other words the displays appear one after the other. When the first active display is acknowledged, the next display for the order starts to blink. The pick-to-light system can also run in parallel mode. In this case, all displays featuring articles belonging to the order light up simultaneously, and disappear again one by one after the retrieval of the relevant quantity has been acknowledged. The item-specific check weighing function is no longer active, however.
At the end of the picking zone, the operator acknowledges the entire order and returns the tray with the order box to the conveyor track. The box is then transported to the next order-picking station relevant to the order, where it is processed in a similar manner.
Articles that are only rarely ordered are supplied dynamically in four walking beam devices (C sorters) in a separate part of the plant, so that they do not take up valuable space in the Transit Warehouse that is more urgently needed for high-demand articles with a high turnover. The workstations at the C sorters are similar to those in the Transit Warehouse. A PTL system and the check weigher are also used here to optimize the quality of the work.
The completely picked mixed boxes from the Transit Warehouse and the C sorters and the original boxes from the high-bay warehouse are subsequently merged into a single material flow and temporarily stored in a further eight walking beam devices (order sorters). They wait there centrally, ready to fulfil the orders at the large and small package stations as quickly as possible.
Packing station ergonomics
Among other things, special attention has been paid to ensuring that the dispatch pallets at the large package stations are prepared in accordance with ergonomic requirements. The boxes from the order sorters are supplied to the operator at a height of about 90 cm. At the workstation, a comb-type device automatically lifts the box off of the tray from below. It can then be slid across a short table onto an empty euro pallet waiting on the other side at the same working height. The now empty tray is taken away on a separate conveyor belt. The packing process continues as soon as the next box arrives – unhealthy, tiring and time-wasting bending down is eliminated. The pallet stands on a scissor-lift table, so that once one layer has been packed it can be lowered ready for the next layer to be added.
Integration into the existing infrastructure
In the course of the construction project, Siemens L&A will also upgrade the equipment in the existing Goods Distribution Centre (GDC) and link the material flow to the new logistics centre. The GDC will be retrofitted with the latest Siemens Simatic S7 generation of material handling controls, and the drive and control equipment of the S/R machines will also be modernized. The Siemens ProX4 material flow software will connect the new and existing warehouses uniformly to the SAP LES (logistics execution system) software. This manages all warehouse movements and reports them to Merckle/ratiopharm’s R/3 system. Employees in the Materials Planning and Scheduling Department thus always have a standardized and up-to-date view of the processes in the warehouses, ensuring the highest possible process quality.
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The Merckle/Ratiopharm group
The Merckle/Ratiopharm group is an established pharmaceutical organisation that successfully operates from two German sites, Ulm and Blaubeuren, and is one of the region’s major employers. The parent company, Merckle GmbH, ranks among the biggest German drug manufacturers with a proprietary product portfolio and its own drug research department. Ratiopharm preparations are the most widely used in Germany and the company occupies a leading position among European vendors of generic drugs.
The Merckle/Ratiopharm group is 100 % family owned and is still run by members of the family. The group generated total revenues of 1.208 billion euros in 2003 and currently numbers approx. 2450 employees. It is continuously expanding at both the Ulm and Blaubeuren sites.
The company enhances its international business with Ratiopharm International GmbH. Ratio-pharm International is represented today in 24 countries all over the world, and in 2003 generated revenues totalling 421 million euros in Germany and abroad.

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