Automation: Taking It To The Next Level

Food warehouses gain efficiency, improve productivity and reduce labor costs with automated material handling systems.


Today's food and beverage wholesalers and retailers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Rising labor and transportation costs are squeezing them on one side and increasing customer service demands and SKU complexity are crushing them on the other. In this low-margin business, it's a tough position to be in.

Automated material handling systems could be the answer, but many food and beverage companies have been reluctant to invest in these high-ticket solutions. Traditionally, the industry has steered clear of automation, taking a fairly manual approach to running their warehouses.

There are many reasons why companies are finally turning to automation, from better space utilization in the warehouse, to building "store ready" pallets for their stores, to dealing with harsh freezer environments.

Not surprisingly, skyrocketing fuel costs and the lack of truck drivers are making companies more open to the idea of automation, say solution providers. The systems can help companies build better pallets, as well improve trailer loading for better density.

"In the beverage industry, cube efficiency is typically in the 50 to 60 percent range on a route delivery truck," says Robert Lyon, senior solution consultant, HK Systems Inc., Salt Lake City. "We've installed an automated picking solution for one of our beverage customers which creates a more dense delivery system, so their trucks now are achieving 70 percent to 90 percent cube efficiency. And they've seen a 25 percent to 30 percent reduction in the use of vehicles for delivery because they were able to eliminate routes."

Other beverage companies, such as Anheuser Busch, are turning to automatic trailer loading vehicles, such as the Smartloader, from Jervis B. Webb, Farmington Hills, MI. The device is a fork lift truck that loads trailers automatically, without any operator involvement.

"In the past, companies might have had to modify their trailers in some way in order to use automatic loaders, such as by putting wires inside of the trailers or some kind of guidance system," says Sarah Carlson, marketing manager for Jervis B. Webb. "It would mean you would have to own your own fleet of trailers in order for it to work."

Carlson says that any conventional trailer that comes into the dock can now be loaded by the machine.

Anheuser Busch currently uses a number of the vehicles in its facilities to not only load and unload trailers, but to also move pallets around their warehouses and stack them.

One of the advantages to using the automatic loader is that it is capable of continuous operation due to its automatic battery exchange. "There is no downtime at all for lunch or shift changes," Carlson says. "It can also operate in a lights-out environment."

The Smartloader works off of a Vehicle System Manager that instructs it on the moves it is to make—where to go, what trailers to unload or where it is picking its load from. The machine's system can be tied into a facility's warehouse management system, in order to provide it complete control over inventory.

In addition, if the vehicle were to detect an obstruction, it can notify someone through the WMS system via their pager so they can come and remove it. However, if a warehouse isn't currently using a WMS, the VSM is capable of managing the Smartloader without it.

Automated Picking Solutions Take Hold

Many food and beverage companies are looking for automated picking solutions, according to Brian Sherman, business development manager, Witron Integrated Logistics Corp., Arlington Heights, IL. Witron offers a number of such solutions for supermarket retailers.

"Our customers are looking for a total picking concept," says Sherman. "We have solutions that offer fully automated picking where there's no human touch. We can pick a mixed order and ship it off to the store, without any touching of the case.

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