Cut, bend, weld with the help of automation at Wire Products Poultry

It is said that one of the very first shopping carts (trolleys in South Africa), invented in 1937, was simply a metal frame that held two wire shopping baskets. Eventually the design evolved to one basket, and the nesting capability was added for easy storage. The first shopping cart baby seats were added in the 1950s. For the next several decades, the shopping cart design remained the same except when it came to size. The average shopping cart has almost tripled in size since 1975, from a stack of two hand baskets to the larger trolleys that we see today.

Robotic Innovations was approached in August 2020 and by the end of 2021 they had already begun installing and commissioning a solution to assemble the basket of the trolleys, which was always done manually previously. The system consists of one MIG welding Fanuc 100iD 8L welding robot (tacking) and one Fanuc R2000iC 165F spot welding robot with a servo spot welding gun

There are many reasons and theories why they have increased in size according to retail company consultants who study the habits of shoppers and most of them will say bigger carts lead to more spending, but personally I think it is a matter of convenience. This could change in the future because supermarket executives are wanting more data on us individuals so they can ‘monitor’ our behaviour and biometrics when shopping. Internationally patents are being filed titled ‘System And Method For Biometric Feedback Cart Handle’ whereby the trolley’s handle would use sensors to track various criteria, including a ‘baseline’ temperature and pulse of the shopper, the movement of the shopping trolley, and the force applied to the shopping trolley handle and shopping trolley speed. The data would be transmitted to a server and used to alert staff, they say, when shoppers might need help or medical assistance. However, it is more than likely to do with enhancing their knowledge on the behaviour aspects of each individual and then reacting and marketing products, accordingly.

Albert de Villiers, MD of Wire Products Poultry with his daughter Renata and son Johan, both of whom work in the company

Obviously, the idea is novel from the standpoint of protecting elderly customers, but it comes with inevitable privacy drawbacks, given the recent data breaches by some well-known social media companies.

Nevertheless, the trolley is generally the first thing you touch when you walk into a grocery or food supermarket or store, and the last thing you touch before you leave the parking lot. The shopping trolley has become a quintessential part of your shopping experience, but have you ever thought about where the trolleys come from? As we all know these days shopping trolleys have many other uses other than the very purpose they are manufactured for.

Shopping trolley, cable tray, racking and shelving, welded wire mesh and poultry cage and trolley manufacturer Wire Products Poultry (WPP) has thrived for 35 years in the wire mesh and product related industry. The company has grown as a domestic supplier, in the face of stiff international competition.

The Fanuc cell now automatically welds the shopping trolleys together and the company have seen a 100% increase in production

Along the way WPP has made substantial technology improvements in its manufacturing processes. In the past, improvements were small steps. Advancing was a matter of training workers on a new process or a new machine, but usually it was a refinement or an upgrade to a previous process. These days, as foreign competitors that rely on manual methods and inexpensive labour vie for market share, WPP is advancing by taking big strides in investing in automation. The company has always been progressive and invested in robotic automation to improve quality and enhance production.

This year marks the 10th year since the first robotic welder was purchased by WPP. 2022 also yields another milestone in the company’s history for its use of robots during the manufacturing process. The company has invested in its first robotic cell system that will increase the output and quality of the trolleys that the company manufactures. The system consists of one MIG welding Fanuc 100iD 8L welding robot (tacking) and one Fanuc R2000iC 165F spot welding robot with a servo spot welding gun. This is over and above the fourth Yaskawa spot welding robot that was installed in March 2022.

All staff previously involved with manually welding the trolleys have now been redeployed in the company. Wire Products Poultry is currently only using 20% of the capacity that the cell is designed for but have ideas to use the excess capacity

Albert de Villiers, Managing Director and founder of WPP in 1987, explains his philosophy of technology and automation: “I have visited many international suppliers and trade exhibitions all over the world. I made it my business to do so because the opportunities are endless to make contact with fellow industrialists sharing ideas and problem solving in fabricating, machining or manufacturing. Seeing the latest developments in our industry and to see in which direction our industry is moving in, what goals are set by world leaders in their specialised fields, is invaluable for me to learn and to run and improve my business.”

“This is where I have sourced many of the manufacturing processes and equipment that we use daily. That was until the pandemic held the world hostage and over various stages put a stop to all travelling. Thank goodness it did not put a stop to innovation and during this period, in conjunction with Robotic Innovations, we were able to come up with a solution for what I regarded as a bottleneck and headache on the production floor.”

“The assembling of the basket of the trolleys has always been done manually. We had to rely on labour and of course you can encounter many variables when man is involved. We needed to improve our welding quality, increase our capacity and production throughput. This has always been the dictum of our investments and a motivating factor of my international travel.”

A trolley that is nearly finished being welded in the cell

“However, in this case we had unforeseen restrictions put in our way. This was after many meetings and suggestions to solve our problem, none of them being satisfactory. We then approached Robotic Innovations in August 2020 and by the end of 2021 they had already begun installing and commissioning a solution for us.”

“The Fanuc cell now automatically welds our shopping trolleys together and we have seen a 100% increase in production, we have redeployed all staff previously involved and we are only using 20% of the capacity that the cell is designed for. What it has done is put pressure on the downstream operations.”

“Many concepts were designed and simulated until the right solution ticked all the boxes. Holding something like wire in position with a robot gripper proved much more difficult than anticipated. Having committed to designing and manufacturing the jigging systems as well, the Robotic Innovations team was relentless in finding a design that would work. If it were not for the great Fanuc simulation package’s we use every day, this project would not have been realised.”

“However, automation does have some limitations. While an assembler can compensate for a tube that isn’t quite straight and a welder can deal with a gap that is a little wider than expected, machines aren’t very good at that sort of thing. Modern machines and automated manufacturing lines can provide big productivity gains compared to decades-old, manually intensive manufacturing processes, with two caveats: The incoming material must have sufficiently tight dimensional tolerances, and the automated processes likewise must be consistent and repeatable because they often feed other automated processes.”

Welded mesh manufactured by Wire Products Poultry on its way to a client

Other mesh solutions cover products such as panels and are made according to client specifications with material thicknesses from 2.5mm up to 8mm

Cut, punch, bend, weld
“Shopping trolley construction hasn’t changed substantially over the decades. The basket is made in three basic steps. Workers cut a series of wires to length and lay them out in the required spacing, use resistance welding to join them, then fold the assembly to form the basket. Other workers cut, bend, and punch the tube to form the frame. The last two steps are assembling the basket to the frame and affixing the wheels. From there, the shopping trolley goes through a manual inspection process to ensure that all four wheels contact the ground, which prevents the dreaded phenomenon in which one wheel twirls erratically and uselessly, and then the cart is sent off for a final inspection.”

“Galvanising, if not done previously, coating and other finishing operations are then done before shipping to our client. We do not deal with the supermarket or controlling entity – that is done by our client.”

“The shopping experience has changed a lot. Years ago, many people went grocery shopping twice a month so you needed bigger trolleys. These days, many go several times a week, and some people shop for groceries every day. Shopping more frequently means smaller purchases. For many shoppers, the traditional shopping cart is too big and the handheld basket gets a little too heavy, so smaller shopping trolleys are increasingly common. We have had to adapt and we now offer X different variations of shopping trolleys.”

“The space size accommodates 140 litres, 180 litres, 210 litres or 235 litres of shopping or goods and they can be two or three tier.”

The company has had great success with their racking and shelving products, all again with a mesh base

Wire coming off coil and being cut-to-size

“Another trend in shopping trolley design is a shorter wheelbase. As the population ages, more people rely on walkers. A trolley with a shorter wheelbase handles more like a walker and is a little easier to manoeuvre than a standard-length trolley. Rather than one big basket, this type has two baskets, one low and one high. Another design, one intended to ease the burden of lifting groceries from a deep basket or low basket, has a single, shallow basket.”

Not just about shopping trolleys
Although shopping trolleys are an important aspect about WPP and their trolleys can be found all over South Africa in supermarkets, grocery stores and building suppliers, the company is not just about shopping trolleys. When the company was established it operated from a factory in Delville, Germiston manufacturing various poultry products, general deep freeze baskets and fridge/freezer baskets. All manufacturing and assembly operations were done manually back then.

Growth saw the company move to a bigger factory in Wadeville in 1989 where it spent just over 10 years before moving to its current site in Electron, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, in 2000. During this time the company developed other products such as 4, 7 and 8 tier trolleys for displaying poultry products such as eggs and transporting hens. These types of trolleys are also used in bakeries and in supermarkets that have their own bakery.

Wire being extruded

Welding of mesh panels

“In essence manipulating, welding and finishing hard drawn wire, galvanised wire and stainless steel wire is what our business is about. Anything from 2.3mm to 12mm wire we are capable of processing and assembling into product. We were manufacturing wire mesh cable trays and accessories long before we started manufacturing shopping trolleys and the related baskets/cages in 1999.”

Racking and shelving products
“We have also had great success with our racking and shelving products, all again with a mesh base. In 1999 we were approached by a company that had a problem which they needed solved. The product had to support almost two tons of weight, allow more light through than conventional pallets and wooden decking and had to make provision for the flow of water in case of fire.”

“Various samples and designs were presented by competitors, but none could sufficiently support the weight required. WPP presented a sample that immediately met with the approval of the client. As a result our Mesh Deck range was born.”

“Projects that we have supplied internationally with this product include the Israel Bank Archive Project and in countries such as Madagascar, Nigeria, Malawi, Zambia and Namibia.”

The Varo wire processing machine performs automatic cutting operations

The Varo wire processing machine also performs automatic welding operations

“Well-known retail companies that we have supplied with our product for their distribution centres include Pick n Pay, Shoprite, McCain, Woolworths, Schneider Electrical, L’Oreal, Spar, Kraft and Farmwise.”

“We have even had good traction in the motor industry. Some of the OEMs that we have supplied with our products are BMW, Ford Southern Africa, Toyota, Caterpillar, Mercedes Benz, Peugeot, Volkswagen South Africa and when they were still here General Motors.”

“The product is SABS tested and the load capacity is from 100kg to 2 000kg. For a load capacity less than 100kgs there are other products.”

Other products
“Our other mesh solutions cover products such as panels and are made according to client specifications with material thicknesses from 2.5mm up to 8mm.”

“Another popular product is our rolltainers which can be used in a multitude of situations from supermarkets to warehousing and transporting. Single door and two door nesting rolltainers can be foldable to save warehouse space and on return transportation costs.”

Material handling of processed wire on the Varo machine

A Yaskawa spot welding robot that was installed in March 2022

“We have also recently developed a new product for a client that is in its infancy stage. The nestable and stackable wire pallets have great potential because of the load capacity and the reusable aspect. Unlike wooden pallets the lifespan of these pallets are many years and of course the damage aspect is reduced drastically.”

The company’s continuous investments in machines and software have yielded extraordinary productivity improvements. This has kept it in business as the industry has consolidated. It has also kept out foreign competition, which is quite an achievement, considering that many of the processes used to build grocery trolleys require manual labour, an area in which many foreign competitors have a cost advantage.

For further details contact Wire Products Poultry on TEL: 011 623 2650 or visit