In Holland they do the unthinkable­ grocery retailers and suppliers share a £25m cold store where automation yields big savings. Sarah Hardcastle reports Imagine Tesco, Sainsbury and Birds Eye Wall's sharing a cold store to benefit from goods transfer between manufacturer and retailer without incurring the cost of physically moving products. It's a nice idea, but one that's so untenable in the current business climate, where competitive advantage has to be maintained at all costs, it's unlikely to get beyond the boardroom door. Things are different in Holland. There leading grocery retailers Albert Heijn and De Boer Unigro have a more relaxed approach to competition, happily sharing a new hi-tech cold store in Tilburg for the last year along with manufacturers such as Iglo Mora, part of Unilever. Built and run by Christian Salvesen, the cold store cost £25m and is the largest single warehouse investment the logistics supplier has ever made. European marketing director Nicola Thomas says it is part of the company's strategy to achieve European growth by providing purpose built shared user solutions. "We see partnerships as the way forward. Companies want it because it provides mutual benefits and are looking for suppliers with a pan-European view who can help them do it. "The concept behind Tilburg was to combine retailers and manufacturers in one facility to remove a link in the supply chain, in this case the need for a separate manufacturer warehouse. It reduces inventory and handling costs." Christian Salvesen does the ordering for the retailers and stock control for all parties, maintaining confidentiality between competitors. "Retailers talk to each other, they don't have the same hang-ups as they do in the UK because of the effects of shared user," says director of technical services Phil Shepherd. One of the warehouse's chief attractions is its speed and handling cost savings deriving from its high degree of automation. The unmanned 33 metre tall highbay has space for 35,300 single depth pallets each of which are automatically weighed, profiled and checked in before being conveyed to a designated slot by nine free roving automatic guided vehicles. Retrieval, by the same vehicles, is controlled by computer radio communication. Vehicles change level by entering one of five automatic goods lifts. At peak, the system can handle 80 full pallets an hour, in and out, and could increase to 140 an hour. Christian Salvesen is now investing in a further six automatic vehicles, increasing throughput by 35%. The low bay handles traditional case picking, automatically replenishing up to 1,500 product lines and despatching 250,000 cases each week, with daily deliveries to more than 850 stores. It also houses an automated layer picking system which can handle over 1,000 products and uses a robot to strip pallets, placing each layer on a tray. An automatic storage and retrieval system, which can store 9,000 individual layers, retrieves trays in correct sequence to match customers' orders. It can store and retrieve over 180 individual layers an hour. The warehouse handles 25% of Holland's total frozen food requirement, half Albert Heijn's Dutch market, and 30% of De Boer Unigro's indigenous requirements. Will the concept transfer to the UK? "We've shown it to Safeway," says Shepherd, "and now we'll be marketing it to UK retailers." {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}