We all have an image in our head of what happens behind the doors of a typical warehouse.
Lots of people handling boxes, forklift trucks buzzing about and a cacophony of noise.
Then you step inside the Digital Distribution Centre of the Future – a new $77 million facility at the SEGRO East Midlands Gateway, near Castle Donington.
Inside, there is technology that is set to revolutionise how goods are distributed – not just for the present time, but for the next quarter of a century.
Once up and running, the Digital Distribution Centre of the Future, will handle the distribution of Nestle goods made by 11 manufacturing sites.
The centre has been created thanks to a partnership between XPO, Nestle and Swisslog Logistics Automation – and has had a gestation period of around five years.
Gavin Williams, XPO’s UK and Ireland managing director, said: “It has definitely been a team effort. All three companies have worked together to create a distribution centre which we believe is truly ground-breaking.”
In terms of feet on the ground, the processes within are not as human intensive as neighbouring sites such as Amazon and Shop Direct. The size of the car park compared to its neighbours gives an indication of that.
That said, the centre will employ real people. Mr Williams argues that the technology is there to help humans do their job better, rather than replacing them.
He said: “Because these are more technical roles, they are higher value jobs. The technology is there to give an improved employee experience.
“What we have created through the use of technology is a state-of-the-art facility that places great emphasis on safety, security and efficiency.”
In particular, technology developed by Swisslog has played a key role in making the centre a reality.
Its technology is a big feature of the custom-designed centre, which features advanced sorting systems and robotics alongside state-of-the-art automation.
According to James Sharples, managing director of Swisslog UK, the site’s digital ecosystem integrates predictive data and intelligent machines to deliver one of the most advanced distribution management centres in the world.
But as well as being a distribution centre, the building will have its own on-site laboratory, in which new systems will be tested and trialled, with a view to being introduced at some point in the future.
He said: “We’ve taken some of our existing technology and adapted and improved it to create this bespoke facility.
“But it does not stop there. Even when the centre is up and running we will be working with XPO, continuing to look at new ways of improving efficiency and increasing volume.”
In terms of how the distribution centre works in its current intended form, the whole process begins with the goods arriving at the building on pallets. These are then lifted by machine onto a conveyor and taken to a monorail.
Hung from an elevated pedestrian walkway, the monorail is a key element of the operation, transporting goods throughout the building.
The monorail takes the deliveries to the appropriate storage area. The centre is fitted out with huge areas of racking – some of which are temperature controlled, depending on the goods in question.
When it comes to distribution, one of the major benefits of the new centre is its ability to make up bespoke orders.
For example, a customer may not want to order a whole pallet of Kit-Kats. Instead, they might want a mixed pallet of products – known at the centre as a “rainbow pallet”.
To make up a mixed pallet, there is a very clever piece of kit that has been introduced by Swisslog. Called ACPaQ, this machine can make up a pallet with different products – a bit like a 3-D Tetris game.
It can also work out which products should be on the bottom (namely the heavier items) and which should be at the top (the lighter products that would be likely to get damaged if they were on the bottom).
These pallets are then grabbed by another machine, put on a conveyer and sent to dispatch, ready to be loaded onto a lorry and off to the customer.
All of this is overseen by staff in an office, who are constantly monitoring the performance and health of the machines.
At present, the distribution centre is still in the testing phase, with engineers putting all of the machines through their paces and fine-tuning the processes.
It is then hoped that the site will start operating for real some time in Spring 2020.