[Interview] Jan van der Velden (FEM): «Warehouses must become actual logistics factories»

Jan van der Velden, president of FEM.

In an age when the intralogistics sector is experiencing high growth in Europe, industrial groups are calling for warehouses to be automated to 95% The President of the European materials handling federation FEM talks to ALL4PACK Paris.

What are the main trends coming out of the European intralogistics market today? 

The intralogistics sector is benefitting from strong growth. This is directly related to the development of e-commerce companies which, fuelled by consumers, give over an ever larger role to the customisation of the products they sell. As a result, logistics warehouses have to deal with increasingly complex flows, mainly because there are a large number of articles which are increasingly diverse in nature. In parallel, work rates are also accelerating. And so it is clearly evident that traditional logistics solutions can’t keep up. So to fulfil these new demands, particularly in the area of service quality, warehouses are tending to replace their manual processes by automated processes.

This is certainly a good start but we have to go much further. We must develop solutions that resemble those implemented in factories, where we can see some very interesting things, such as in the automotive industry with continuous improvement processes. Warehouses must implement equivalent processes in order to transform themselves and become actual logistics factories. 

Will these logistics factories be automated to 100%?

No, only from 80 to 95%. Because automation cannot happen without people. Not only do we require technicians to ensure that all the systems are operating correctly, but we also need handling staff capable of processing complex orders. These account for barely 1% of business and relate to exceptional products which are out of the way of usual flows. To be able to manage them automatically, you would need specifically dedicated lines, which would make it unfeasible because it wouldn’t be profitable. The most flexible resource to prepare this type of order is people.

I don’t think so. It’s no coincidence that highly-automated countries such as Germany or the USA have low levels of unemployment. It’s simply because a sort of compensation happens: automation accelerates growth in e-commerce, which generates new jobs. In particular in transport and packaging. 

Where does France stand in the automation race?

There are a lot of automation projects being delivered in France at the moment. The mass retail group Leclerc has for example already automated several logistics centres. There are also works underway at Vente-Privée and Les 3 Suisses and La Redoute. I reckon that in one or two years’ time, France will have a few very good examples on display. In less than three years, the country will have brought itself up to the same level as Germany, which is the undisputed leader in intralogistics automation in Europe.

There are several .Firstly, manufacturers lack highly-qualified staff. In practice, engineers are not very knowledgeable about intralogistics. This means that when they start looking for a job, they tend to go towards other sectors, in particular towards the automotive industry. Our role at the FEM is to raise awareness about the warehousing sector. On the one hand by promoting it through advertising. And on the other, by increasing the number of internships for young people between 14 and 17. The aim is to trigger vocations by giving them the chance to tangibly see for themselves the very sophisticated solutions on which manufacturers work.

Are there obstacles relating to standards in the intralogistics area? 

There is more like a standards vacuum around some types of equipment. For example, storage and retrieval machines suffer from a blatant lack of international standards. To cater to this problem, FEM issues its recommendations. Some of them, like the one relating to the calculation of S/R machine cycle times, have actually been adopted around the world. It remains to convert them to the international ISO standard to give them official weight. In this way, intralogistics systems will gradually be able to become harmonised. As soon as a global harmonisation of industrial standards is achieved, logistics systems will be quick and easy to install in warehouses. But we must continue to guarantee that companies still have free and unbiased access to outside markets. 

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