Automation Domination

Grocery wholesalers and food distributors are jumping on the automation bandwagon.


Automating The Case Picking Process

Order picking is the most costly function in a warehouse and in the food industry—thanks to SKU proliferation and the need for smaller, more frequent deliveries—case picking volumes and costs as percent of total DC expenses are going up. To combat this problem, a number of material handling vendors have developed technologies to automate or semi-automate the case picking process. These solutions offer improvements in productivity, accuracy and speed of delivery.

“Full case picking used to be considered the Holy Grail of distribution,” says Jack Lehr, vice president sales, automation, Schaefer Systems International Inc., Charlotte, NC. “Until just a few years ago, there were no good solutions—nothing cost justifiable and reliable.”

Schaefer designed its case picking system (SCP) for high-SKU environments such as grocery and beverage handling. The SCP automates all processes from receiving, de-palletizing, selecting, sequencing and palletizing of mixed case pallet loads. The system can handle from 30,000 to 300,000 cases per day and by removing labor from the process, users can expect to attain a drop in cost-per-unit shipped by up to 30 percent.

The system uses advanced computer simulation of pallet-load building. The software that controls the order-picking and sequencing system starts with order information and then virtually builds cube-optimized pallets. Then the software tells the system which trays and in what order to deliver to the pick system. Palletizing robots receive the products in the correct sequence, allowing the SCP to build cube-optimized, store-ready pallets by family group.

Product characteristics are entered into the system through Schaefer’s cube dimensioning unit that collects and stores physical data. “The software that drives the SCP is very complex, so if you’re going to automate a DC specifically for case picking, you need a good IT staff because they’ve got to understand how the software works,” says Lehr. “Although there’s a significant savings in manual labor, companies always have to increase the size of their engineering and IT departments. One of our clients is going from 218 warehouse employees to 23. But they’re going to hire 13 engineers, because they’re running a triple shift operation and you’ve got to have adequate coverage on every shift.”

Besides the obvious labor savings within the warehouse, many retailers point out that automation is also saving labor within the stores, notes Witron’s O’Farrell. “This is a direct result of our ability to automatically build store-ready and aisle-ready mixed SKU pallets within the warehouse.”

Witron has developed automated case-picking systems for supermarket chains such as Kroger and Sobey’s that enables the retailers to build mixed pallets for individual stores. Witron’s OPM (order picking machinery) system loads cases onto the pallets in the sequence that they’ll be put away on the shelves in the store.

Last year, Sobey’s opened a fully-automated 500,000-square-foot DC in Vaughan, Ontario, to service more than 340 stores in the Toronto area. The facility receives more than 320,000 cases per day and can ship 200,000 cases per day. The majority of the case picking is done by the OPM system. Order pallets are automatically assembled by 16 picking machines that are installed on two-levels within the warehouse. The retailer says that having the pallets automatically assembled by the individual store layouts has reduced product damage and labor at store, and the system has enabled it to have near perfect order accuracy while helping to reduce out-of-stocks.

The benefits extend beyond the warehouse and store as well. “Automation is also helping our customers realize savings in transportation, as our automated case picking system can produce taller and denser order pallets than conventional picking methods,” says O’Farrell. “One customer experienced an 8 percent reduction in transportation cost after implementing our automated case picking system.”

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