The food industry is among the most competitive out there. Low margins force companies to continually look for ways to increase productivity and improve cost-effectiveness, all while delivering top-notch customer service.
One of the ways that food retailers, distributors and manufacturers are accomplishing this is with the use of automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) in their distribution centers. But while AS/RS can provide many benefits for food distribution, it also comes with a hefty price tag-$1 million at a bare minimum and on up to tens of millions for more sophisticated configurations.
With that kind of an investment, you need to make sure that AS/RS is a good fit for your operation before even beginning to put together a request for proposals. Most AS/RS vendors recommend that to understand whether or not AS/RS is right for your operations, you first consider a long list of criteria.
If AS/RS is the right fit for your operation, the benefits are several, according to Ken Ruehrdanz of Siemens Logistics and Assembly Systems, Grand Rapids. MI. He names the following:
- Reduction in bio-mechanical injuries: Food distribution centers primarily handle case goods that tend to be heavy, especially when a worker handles the case loads for an entire shift. Workers will bend, lift and twist hundreds of times each day while handling cases of food. Injuries can be devastating to the health of workers, not to mention medical and absentee costs. AS/RS can accommodate cases and pallets automatically, allowing fewer "touches" by human hands.
- Reduce exposure to harsh working environments: Freezer storage often requires that product be held in sub-zero temperatures, which is not ideal for worker comfort and health. Turnover is high in these jobs. An AS/RS can automate the warehouse storage function and allow staff to work outside in the freezer or cooler environment.
- Reduction in building and energy costs: Freezer and cooler space is costly to build and maintain; AS/RS can minimize freezer/cooler space. The implementation of an AS/RS allows high-density storage and will therefore reduce the footprint and square footage of the freezer or cooler, thus reducing building and energy costs.
- Improved inventory control and accuracy: For food producers, it is extremely important to make sure first in/first out strategies are maintained. When compared to traditional methods, AS/RS operates under computer control so product does not get misplaced in the warehouse, ensuring FIFO.
- Reduced truck fleet and labor: AS/RS requires less staff to perform work. When AS/RS is used in two- or three-shift operations, significant re-turn on investment can be realized. Furthermore, AS/RS means a reduction in facility damage by manually operated forklifts and in product damage.
Mike Kotecki, senior vice president at HK Systems in Milwaukee, adds that AS/RS can provide increased functionality to operations. Inventory accuracy will improve, he says, because AS/RS provides 100 percent computer controlled material movement. It eliminates physical inventories, thereby providing for 100 percent inventory accuracy.
Another functionality improvement, according to Kotecki, is inventory optimization. "A and B items are stored closer to the point of use, leading to automated velocity zoning based on turn rate," he explains. He adds that you also can achieve just-in-time delivery of sequenced product to shipping or production by creating and allocating virtual batches for future use.
It's because of these benefits that AS/RS has found a home in the food industry. Retailers, manufacturers and distributors alike can all reap the benefits of the technology, says Ken Matson, executive vice president at FKI Logistex in St. Louis. "It's more a question of facility than it is industry," he says. "AS/RS can fit into a number of applications and may apply across a number of facilities."