Mr. Endörfer, in Leipzig DB Schenker operates one of its biggest warehouses in the world. What exactly makes this site a megasite?
We have a roofed area covering 125,000 square meters, and a team of about 1,100 employees. We pack some 180,000 boxes and crates each month and get them ready for dispatch; this corresponds to 80,000 cubic meters of goods. And we do all that for one single customer: a German car manufacturer. But the significance lies not only in those numbers, but even more so in the variety of tasks, and the manner in which we do them.
What exactly are those tasks?
We ensure that the vehicle parts required by the manufacturer at production facilities outside Germany are fit for shipping. The goods arrive from suppliers all over Europe and are, as of now, destined for three plants in China. Our most important task is repacking the parts that arrive here in cage pallets into containers such as wooden crates or cartons. Transporting these cage pallets overseas would be too complicated and too expensive. The challenge here is to pack the often sensitive parts in these containers in such a way that they arrive in perfect condition.
Advanced logistics engineering: take a look inside DB Schenker's gargantuan facility in the city of Leipzig!
Video: DB Schenker
What could conceivably happen to the freight, and how can you prevent it?
The parts could, for example, oxidize or collect rust or scratches. With more complex assemblies such as engine-off cooling systems, components could break off. We do what we can to prevent all conceivable kinds of damage by providing custom packaging that is designed here on site by a team of specialists. This ranges from devices to ensure that the parts in the containers do not move, all the way through to coatings to prevent oxidation. The effort we put into this is enormous: we are currently handling around 6,800 different parts. For about half of them we need to adapt the packaging – and with that the work instructions or training for the employees – once a year in some form or other, because changes have been made to the parts themselves.
That sounds like a lot of manual labor. That being so, what is the role played by automation?
We are continuing to drive automation forward, but without compromising our flexibility. For example, we’ve started a test using automated guided vehicles for transporting containers, which we already intend to put into regular operation by the end of 2018. We work closely with colleagues at locations in Belgium and Singapore, where similar projects are at the planning stages. Starting in 2019, we plan to work with an autonomously operating “weasel” for moving swap bodies, a system that is already being trialed at another DB Schenker location. Also starting next year, we want to use drones for carrying out stock-taking.
Isn’t managing such projects, in addition to running the daily business, an enormous challenge?
With regard to both the magnitude of our task and our discerning customers, we certainly are under pressure to continually reinvent ourselves, both at the technical level and in organizational terms. But it is positive pressure! We see ourselves acting like a kind of beacon. Which means: one of the things we want to achieve is to provide support to other locations. The best example here: in Duisburg, where DB Schenker operates on behalf of another major German car manufacturer, a packaging planning team has been established based on our own Leipzig model, and we provide the technical supervision.
What are the future plans for the location?
In the years to come, the current freight volume will double. This is in part because, in addition to the plants in China that we already supply, there will be another plant added in mid-2019, in Mexico. Nothing will change here in terms of our floor space. We will therefore arrange to have more freight packed by our suppliers and then handle it here in a cross-docking system. We will also optimize the utilization of our existing floor space. Depending on the circumstances, we may also go from a two-shift operation to a three-shift operation, at least some of the time. And if that isn’t enough: we are good at coming up with creative, and sometimes unconventional, solutions!