One of the most important aspects of the food supply chain is maximizing shelf life. Companies need to get products to stores quickly to widen the purchasing window and ensure product freshness for consumers. From the moment a product is harvested or produced, the clock is ticking.
In some cases, products may spend the majority of their life cycle in transit from supplier to retailer. For instance, Florida oranges may be shipped hundreds of miles across several states. Pineapples may come from as far as Mexico, Honduras, or Guatemala. To adjust for transportation time, companies adopt specialized packaging and temperature control to increase product longevity and preserve goods’ appearance and freshness.
While these techniques can help prolong shelf life, efficient product handling in distribution can save time as well. This is where automation can be a great benefit. Automated order picking systems can streamline and accelerate fulfillment so organizations can keep up with the need for speed in food distribution.
A New Breed of Automation
The distribution center is where companies experience some of their greatest pain points, particularly when they rely solely on manual order fulfillment. Employees have to scramble up and down long stretches of aisles, pick orders, and bend to lift heavy crates or boxes. Order picking is a strenuous and injury-prone job, highly dependent on the physical endurance and speed of each individual. These risks have made careers in materials handling less appealing to job seekers, resulting in rampant labor shortages seen nationwide.
Despite interest in automation as a solution to these challenges, many facilities have resisted investing because previous systems ran storage and order picking as separate functions, which can be too slow for the timely demands of food logistics. But today, there is a new breed of robotic systems that integrate picking and handling into a single solution.
These systems can handle all operations in any order simultaneously, streamlining product handling and saving time. Products can be picked immediately. Distribution centers that implement these integrated solutions are often up to six times more efficient than their manual counterparts. Automation speed means facilities can prepare orders closer to the time of a truck’s anticipated arrival for more on-time deliveries and a faster time to market.
Further, automation can fill in the operational gap left by labor shortages and improve work conditions for existing employees. Namely, automation can alleviate existing staff from the physical burden of distribution and elevate them into new technical and supervisory roles. These are safer and more fulfilling positions centered around managing warehouse operations and overseeing automated systems. And, with the flexibility to handle seasonal changes in availability and demand, companies can get the freshest food in front of consumers year round.
Delivering Freshness to Supermarkets
Product freshness is a central part of Spanish supermarket giant Mercadona’s corporate philosophy. To uphold this commitment and maximize product shelf life, Mercadona chose to invest in automation in its new Guadix, Granada distribution center.
The distribution center was designed to handle around 6,000 SKUs with zones for different product types: one for dry produce, two for refrigerated products, one for frozen products, and a production area for bread. Installed robots provide buffer storage and order picking as one flexible operation. They handle full crates of fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat in the refrigerated zones where there are around 300 different SKUs in some 30,000 crates. A warehouse control system manages all systems and material flow through the facility, and provides complete product tracking and traceability.
Fully integrated with its surrounding manual operations, the system moves products from goods reception to storage, retrieval, picking, and sorting, and loads the orders for delivery. It can handle and prepare orders for Mercadona’s over 1,600 supermarket stores in just six hours. Products reach stores with more time to spare, providing Mercadona consumers with only the freshest selection of products.
The Guadix center has been so successful that Mercadona plans to automate fresh food distribution in four new distribution centers. The automation in these facilities will help ensure product freshness for 2 million of the 5 million households that shop at Mercadona every day.
Optimizing Dairy Distribution
Similarly, dairy distribution centers have to move products from storage to dispatch with speed and precision—especially given the industry’s strict sell-by dates. When it came time to build a new liquid milk plant, Kroger chose to develop a state-of-the-art facility centered around automation. This would help ensure the quality and freshness of its products and reduce workers’ exposure to injury and work-related strain.
The Mountain View Foods facility built in Denver, Colorado, processes fresh conventional and organic milk and packages aseptically processed milk, creams, and juices. The facility’s end-to-end automated solution can store up to 36,000 crates and picks 32,000 crates per day. The system handles stacks of single plastic dairy cases on non-traditional, knee-high, plastic belt conveyors. The cases or stacks are picked according to specified sequences on one end of the facility and then palletized for truck loading at the other end, allowing for significant storage buffering in between. A warehouse control system is used for all order processing, gantry movements, and stack transport. Moreover, like at Mercadona, the software collects data on operations, giving Kroger 100-percent traceability for its dairy products.
Kroger benefits from orders picked with 100-percent accuracy at faster speeds, which results in shorter lead times, longer shelf life, and fresher products. Kroger has seen a dramatic difference between its traditional, manual facilities and the Mountain View Foods’ automated system through increased efficiencies and rapid handling, reduced labor costs and errors, and product traceability.
Product freshness and shelf life are critical to all food manufacturers and distributors: Everyone is in the same fight against the clock. Automated technology can provide a distinct advantage through enhanced speed, accuracy, and flexibility. Ultimately, maximized shelf life means more satisfied consumers, less spoilage and waste, and greater profits.
Rickard is a sales manager at Cimcorp Automation Ltd. Reach him at Derek.Rickard@cimcorp.com.