Top 3 reasons to automate fresh food distribution

Top 3 reasons to automate fresh food distribution

Heap of green apples background in the box. Food store. Shelves with natural fruit in the supermarket or farm market. Fresh food. Retail industry. Discounted price. Fruit and vegetable shop. Inflation concept.

Of Derek Rickard, Sales Director, Cimcorp

Everyone along the fresh produce chain works towards a common goal: to provide consumers with safe and high quality products. But time is of the essence when moving perishable goods. A decisive point in the supply chain? The warehouse or distribution center.

Within these facilities, fast and efficient fulfillment operations directly translate into a reliable supply of fresh food on store shelves. On the other hand, inefficiency leads to order delays, poor products and dissatisfied customers. So, to better manage warehouse operations, more fresh food companies and distributors are investing in automation.

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Take advantage of automation

Installed within the distribution end of fresh food production sites or in air-conditioned storage facilities, robotic solutions can optimize and control order fulfillment processes, from receiving goods, to warehousing and storage, to picking. , palletizing, loading and shipping. Facilities that automate, instead of relying solely on manual product handling, become up to six times more efficient and reap great benefits.

Let’s take a look at three of the main benefits, along with examples of leading food companies getting the right automation:

Maximum freshness of the product

Warehouses and distribution centers handling fresh produce must meet very short delivery times to minimize spoilage and maximize shelf life. After all, the less time products spend in stock, the sooner they will be available to customers.

Today’s automated solutions are designed to meet the need for speed. The warehousing and order picking functions can be integrated into a single system, enabling quick and complete product management for those short delivery times. Perishable products with strict expiration dates reach stores as fast as possible and customers buy fresh food.

A prime example comes from grocery giant Kroger and its Mountain View Foods milk processing plant in Denver, Colorado. During the construction of the plant, Kroger implemented an end-to-end automated warehouse solution to precisely control the entire material flow of the facility. Now Kroger is able to rapidly distribute its packaged milk, cream and juice products to over 160 stores, ensuring longer shelf life, optimal freshness and satisfied customers.

Flexibility to meet demand

Fluctuations in demand are a fact of life in the distribution of fresh food. Some are predictable to some degree, such as the seasonal peaks that many properties see during the summer months and the holiday season. Others are nearly impossible to predict, making it much more difficult to adapt. Just look back at the start of COVID-19. Panicked shoppers left countless grocery store shelves empty as distribution centers worked tirelessly to keep up with the growing demand for essential goods.

Modular automated systems can help fresh food establishments prepare for the expected and the unexpected. These systems use pre-engineered automation cells that are standardized and easily repeatable. Facilities can quickly and easily scale up their automation levels as needed to meet changing demand, without disrupting ongoing operations.

Consider how a Midwestern convenience store chain has improved peak capacity through automation. In 2018, Kwik Trip opened a state-of-the-art bakery facility in La Crosse, Wisconsin to increase production volumes of its famous fresh bread and buns. The company has invested in automation for an efficient and well-orchestrated product flow throughout the facility. As soon as the goods are taken out of the oven and packaged, they enter an automated storage and retrieval system (AS / RS). They are then picked and shipped to stores according to a first-in-first-out (FIFO) inventory management model.

As the pandemic broke out, Kwik Trip saw the demand for its freshly baked products nearly triple in just one week. But equipped with flexible automation, Kwik Trip easily maintained the usual high levels of speed, accuracy and freshness of orders, despite the unexpected outage.

Optimal use of work

Labor shortages are common almost everywhere, and warehouses and distribution centers are no exception. Many in the food industry are struggling to recruit and retain enough staff to keep operations running smoothly. These shortcomings strain facilities where employees have to manually move products in and out of the warehouse and pick and prepare all orders by hand.

Conversely, automation can take control of the labor-intensive activities involved in order fulfillment. They can work around the clock with minimal human involvement to fill any existing gaps in the workforce and maximize productivity.

In turn, human employees can abandon physically demanding roles and take on safer, more engaging positions in the warehouse. This could include supervision of automated equipment, selection of picking sequences, transportation planning and system maintenance. Overall, employees will benefit from better working conditions and companies will find new savings through reduced labor costs and increased productivity.

Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe, Inc.®, a Chambersburg, Pennsylvania-based food manufacturer known for its potato bread and sandwiches, has realized these benefits firsthand. After struggling with seasonal staff during the summer peaks, the bakery decided to automate order fulfillment in the headquarters warehouse. Martin’s Famous Pastry Shoppe, Inc.® has implemented an automated system that stores, processes and fulfills orders with minimal human intervention, reducing manpower requirements and working hours by 30%. And by moving employees from labor-intensive locations, the bakery has
eliminated security risks resulting from manual order fulfillment.

Winning the race against time

Despite the clear benefits of automation, some fresh food companies may be reluctant to make the investment. After all, what if their needs change along the way and their system can’t accommodate the changes? Fortunately, automation doesn’t have to be an all or nothing choice.

Flexible and modular automated solutions can be easily incorporated into new buildings or existing structures. And while automation can manage the entire order fulfillment process, companies can also automate the areas of the warehouse that will provide the greatest benefits and the greatest ROI. These “islands of automation” can be integrated with manual operations and scaled down as needed, so operations can perform at their best, no matter what the future brings.

Whichever approach you choose, automated solutions can give you the speed you need. Distributing fresh food is a race against time and it’s time to get ahead of the game.

As Sales Director at Cimcorp, Derek Rickard leads the sales team in developing robotic order fulfillment solutions to meet each customer’s warehouse needs. With over 20 years of supply chain experience, Rickard has worked on many of the first fully automated robotic picking systems in North America.

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