Productivity and cost effectiveness are important in the distribution supply chain for food & beverage retailers and wholesalers to remain competitive. Coupling these two points with the fact that consumers are now demanding more choice, more price-conscious, and are more willing to switch allegiances in order to get better value, there is a strong case for adopting warehouse automation.
Automation in the warehouse and distribution centre is one strategy to reach productivity and cost goals. This article will identify 12 factors—from bio-mechanical injuries and harsh working environments to space utilisation and strategy for slow movers—which are driving the need to increase the use of automated systems.
1. Bio-Mechanical Injuries
Abhisek Sarda, Goa, India
Food & beverage distribution centres primarily handle case goods. Case goods tend to be heavy, especially when a worker handles these caseloads for an entire shift of operation.
Workers will go through bending, lifting and twisting motions hundreds of times a day while handling cases of food product, increasing the chance of injuries that can be devastating to the health of workers. In addition, injuries can incur medical and absentee costs, and the turnover rate in these job functions can be high.
2. Need For Speed & Accuracy
Orders for products must be processed, picked, and shipped at an ever increasing speed, where the trend of smaller shipments remains. Accuracy in order fulfillment is of vital importance. Picking errors cannot be tolerated from a customer service and cost standpoint.
3. Spikes In Throughput
Seasonal increases in throughput rates require the addition of seasonal labour. Seasonal labour can be difficult to hire, train, motivate and manage.
4. Growth Of Slow Moving SKUs
With SKU (Stock Keeping Unit) proliferation, and increases in the volume of product going through a distribution centre, there is more pressure to accommodate slow movers efficiently. Slow movers, which make up the majority of SKUs, are taking up more and more space, and require their own pick face.
5. Real-Time Control
More and more real time information about product movement and product attributes is required to optimise the supply chain. Distribution centre managers need to know exactly where every item is located in the distribution centre and the ongoing status of the order fulfillment process.
6. Harsh Working Environments
Freezer storage often requires products to be held in sub-zero temperatures. This environment is not ideal for worker comfort and health. Legal restrictions require that workers can only be exposed to a freezer environment for limited periods of time, thereby increasing costs. In addition, freezer space is costly to build and maintain; therefore, solutions that can minimise freezer space are ideal.
7. Space Utilisation
There are increasing demands to ‘use the cube’ and provide more productivity in less space. New food distribution centres will need to provide more throughput in a smaller building footprint. Existing food distribution centres are being asked to deal with more and more SKUs at a greater velocity within the existing building footprint.
8. Store Ready
Food retailers need to reduce in-store labour requirements and reduce the time it takes to restock shelves with product. Products shipped to the store needs to be more ‘store ready’. Therefore, items need to arrive at the store pre-sorted and grouped by product family.
9. Multi-Format Retailing
Retailers are operating numerous store formats in an effort to target consumer demographics. This requires fulfillment systems with greater flexibility in order to meet significantly different order profiles.
10. Reduced And/Or Green Packaging
Environmental awareness will affect the cost, type, and quantities of packaging (and packing materials) used in the supply chain. A move towards all-belt conveying solutions (vs. roller) will provide better handling of packaging that is less robust, as well as small and irregular-shaped items.
11. RFID Integration
The transition to RFID labelling of pallets, cases, and items affects the methods in which the product is received, put-away, picked and shipped. As these methods are re-designed for integration with RFID, new and more efficient material handling techniques should also be considered.
12. Transportation Costs
Rising oil prices will drive improved fleet management, and also warehouse operations. Warehouse Control Software (WCS) with order management functions will optimise order consolidation, as well as trailer loading for better density.
Automated material handling system solutions, software and controls can be applied to every issue mentioned above. Automation can be utilised at varying degrees to achieve improvements in product flow, labour allocation, facility size and overall operating costs.
The technology most often utilised includes Warehouse Management Systems Software (WMS), Warehouse Control System Software (WCS), voice and light directed order fulfillment, Automated Storage And Retrieval Systems (ASRS), package and pallet conveyor, sorters, and trailer loaders.
ASRS along with WCS software can be applied in various areas. The most appropriate areas to consider include put-away functions, product storage (especially in a freezer) and replenishment of the pick modules. Therefore, the number of ‘touches’ by a worker can be dramatically reduced.
This addresses the bio-mechanical and harsh environment issues. Also, ASRS maximises the use of cube space, reducing the overall system footprint. Furthermore, ASRS can accommodate slow movers. When slow movers need to be picked, the ASRS can create ‘variable pick faces’ in a pick module. After the slow mover is picked, it is sent back to a reserve storage location, thereby eliminating the need for an active pick face.
Automated systems can provide high throughput rates and reduce the need for seasonal labour as well as increase the speed in which orders are processed. Voice and light directed order fulfillment systems dramatically increase order picking accuracy while speeding up the process.
WMS and WCS software along with sortation systems allow loads to be grouped by product family before shipping. Today’s distribution centres can raise the bar on productivity while reducing costs, speeding up the process, and improving customer service through the effective application of automation and software solutions.