Why you should automate your fresh food logistics

by Derek Rickard

Over the past few years, warehouses and distribution centres have operated under more pressure than ever before. Covid-19 has impacted facilities in nearly every industry – causing new problems and intensifying existing weaknesses. And that’s all on top of ever-rising customer demands for better, faster, and more convenient order- fulfillment services.

Derek Rickard is director of sales at Cimcorp.

The food and grocery industries, in particular, have dealt with major challenges. Throughout the pandemic, warehouses handling fresh and perishable foods faced unpredictable demand spikes as consumers rushed to stockpile the essentials. Many struggled to move products through the warehouse fast enough to keep store shelves stocked and customers happy.

Though the world is finally beginning to recover, the pressure is still on. It’s now up to food producers, distributors, and retailers to build greater resilience for the next big disruption. They’re exploring new ways to reliably meet demand and satisfy customers.

One of the best foundations for speedy and sustainable distribution operations is automation.

Typically, warehouses rely on manual product handling for fresh and perishable foods. This means speed and productivity depend on employee endurance and available labour resources. So, it’s not easy to adapt to change or accommodate growth. Any challenges, like labour shortages or demand spikes, put significant strain on operations – and can easily disrupt the flow of orders moving out the door.

Instead, automated material handling systems can help fresh food companies and retailers simplify, streamline, and safeguard their order fulfillment operations.

Robotic systems can be installed within the distribution end of food and beverage factories, or in climate-controlled storage facilities, to take over the majority of product handling tasks. They can run 24/7, with minimal human intervention, making order fulfillment operations much stronger in the face of disruption.

Today, forward-thinking leaders are implementing fresh food automation to:

1 Boost fulfillment speed to keep food fresh and customers happy

Speed is essential for maximizing the quality of perishable foods. After all, the faster orders are prepared and shipped, the fresher products will be when they reach customers.

Automation meets this need for speed. Robotic systems can store, pick, and move products to dispatch with high speed and precision, far faster than humans can do alone. When investing in automation, many facilities are choosing solutions that integrate storage and order-picking functions into a single system – enabling rapid, end-to-end product handling to meet increasingly tight lead times.

Orders then reach stores as fast as possible – with complete accuracy – minimizing food waste and maximizing shelf life. And when stores keep their shelves stocked with high-quality fresh food, consumers keep coming back for more.

Notably, some companies are even powering faster fulfillment by installing automation in micro-fulfillment centres. These automated “mini” warehouses are a fraction of a typical distribution facility’s size and can be strategically located in regions where demand is high, for shorter, cost-effective last-mile deliveries. For instance, micro-fulfillment centres can be built behind or even within grocery stores to handle fresh food orders for home deliveries or curbside pickups.

2 Overcome labour challenges

Labour shortages have become a big problem for warehouses and distribution centres. As the older generation retires, companies are struggling to recruit and retain enough staff to fill their shoes. Part of the problem is simply the nature of warehouse work. Up-and-coming job seekers just aren’t interested in material handling careers, which they perceive as labour-intensive and dangerous. This is particularly true for cold food facilities, where employees have to work in harsh conditions.

Automation is a great solution, in the short and long term. Able to run with little involvement from employees, robotic systems can fill any gaps in operations and won’t be hindered by workforce shortages. And with automation doing the heavy lifting, existing employees don’t have to perform physically demanding tasks, risk injury, or in the case of cold facilities, brave the cold.

Instead, employees can shift to safer, more engaging roles working alongside advanced automation, like supervising equipment, system maintenance, or analyzing performance data. In the long term, these new roles may even help attract and retain young employees who want to work with advanced technology. Then, food companies can begin re-building their workforce for a more stable future.

3 Optimize operations based on data

Robotics isn’t the only part of an automated solution. A warehouse control system (WCS) is needed to intelligently orchestrate the entire fulfillment process – from individual robot movements to the overall material flow of the warehouse. Collecting data in real-time, a WCS makes timely adjustments to optimize that flow based on inventory, order lines, priorities, tight deadlines, and more.

Then, using all historical data stored in the system, warehouse leaders can analyze facility performance, identify further improvement opportunities, and ensure maximum system uptime.

4 Build flexibility through modular automation

One of the biggest elements of resilience is flexibility. Operations must be able to adapt to changes of all sorts – whether it is predictable seasonal peaks, unpredictable demand spikes, or simply business growth.

This level of flexibility is possible, thanks to modular solutions that use pre-engineered, standardized automation cells. This design makes it easier to start the automation journey and begin solving problems fast.

Companies can initially focus on specific areas of their warehouse that would benefit the most from automation. Then they have the flexibility to scale or modify their levels of automation based on changing business needs, order volumes, or SKU and inventory growth – without interrupting ongoing operations or sacrificing service quality. With flexible automation, warehouses can keep fresh food flowing out the door all year round, no matter how many orders flood in.

Overall, it all comes down to the combination of advanced robotics, intelligent software, and human know-how. When these elements work together, they allow food facilities to run better and faster, satisfy customers with the freshest products, and support business growth – in a secure, scalable, sustainable way. And that’s true resilience.