“There have been a few interesting starts with online grocery sites like Peapod and a few others. But compared to Amazon, which has made an art out of shipping billions of dollars worth of $20 orders, grocery stores who want to get into e-commerce have to deal with DC operations that for years have been focused on pallet loads, getting stuff to the retail shelves, and manning the cash registers.”
Already, e-commerce has begun to gain traction for products such as cheese, steaks, specialty spices, and other items that aren’t typically found in the neighborhood grocery store. Meanwhile the unbeatable convenience, selection, and speed will help make it more prominent in the food and beverage sector in the near future, says Hartman.
Like other integrators and manufacturers operating in the broad warehouse automation space, Retrotech is seeing a definite rise in activity. Hartman says that companies are turning to automation to respond to complexity, improve velocity, and provide scalability.
“The complexity comes with more SKUs, handling more frequent orders made up of smaller quantities, and organizing the warehouse and the delivery trucks to handle more complex orders and staging them in a specific sequence,” he says. “Velocity is just that—doing it faster—while scalability is being able to adapt to changing demands.”
Hartman says that despite the concerns by some that warehouses need to be expanded in size in order to handle the new demands, “as we increase velocity we find that warehouses actually are sufficient in size and capacity if we’re able to repurpose the space.”
Solutions and strategies
There are plenty of solutions and strategies in the retrofit arena that are being implemented across various sectors, including food and beverage.
Overall, Wynright’s Deveikis sees retrofitting initiatives being propelled by processes, in other words, “how to better handle case quantities, and manage routes and their frequency more efficiently.”
In addition to mechanical automation, technology is also a part of these projects. “However, it’s not about replacing the ERP or WMS, it’s about targeted software solutions,” he says, specifically warehouse control systems (WCS), or middleware products designed to take control of everything that’s being managing within the four walls, such as receiving, storage, and G/L accounts.
Wynright has also developed a robotic truck loader (RTL), which allows CPG companies like snack food manufacturers to use space on trucks more efficiently because it not only loads them, but cubes them, too. The fuel savings alone are impressive, considering that you can get five truckloads of product onto four trucks. Case handling rates and workman’s comp improvements are also key benefits, according to the company.
Dematic is also seeing a lot of interest on the software side. “As a company, we’ve invested heavily in our software area and voice-directed warehouse—not just case picking, but using voice for cycle counting, staging, quality assurance, even kitting or performing other value-added activities,” says Kotecki. “Using voice and light concurrently is also key, because it ultimately makes the human element more efficient.”
The company is one of the top resellers of Vocollect in the nation, says Kotecki. Meanwhile, PickDirector, which he describes as a “WMS Lite,” enables companies to establish a foundation in control and material movement so they can start adding automation and technology.
Dematic’s focus on goods-to-person solutions is another way it’s working to make labor more efficient. “We’ve got a brand new family of very high-speed goods-to-person stations called RapidPick, which allows people to batch pick or individually pick tremendous amounts of material over a short period of time and only walk a couple of feet,” Kotecki adds.
And while DC retrofits are occurring across industry verticals, Kotecki says that, “The food and beverage sector is embracing it perhaps more than others because they view it from a cost reduction standpoint, rather than because of growth, market advantage, or customer service. They’re operating margins are so much thinner. They’re not making a 30 percent margin like Apple does on an iPad, they’re embracing it because ‘I’ve got to take 2 cents out of my logistics costs.’”