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The need for speed due to shorter order-to-delivery windows along with margin pressures are causing food and beverage distributors to look for ways to achieve greater efficiencies in order picking. A wide SKU base consisting of many slow movers combined with a scarcity of available labor and the complexity of route-stop sequencing makes automation a good option. But to justify investments, you have to look beyond the labor savings alone.
A fairly simple pick-to-belt operation can yield numerous savings opportunities beyond standard labor calculations. For example, with multi-level pick modules, this type of solution can make better use of the full cube of the building creating a condensed footprint that reduces travel and labor requirements. The resulting savings in utilities, lease and other building costs should be considered alongside additional labor savings as pickers complete the same amount of work in less time and perform less re-work due to higher accuracy. Faster processing of orders may also enable you to offer customers later order cut-off times that result in higher satisfaction, greater loyalty, more business, and best of all, true competitive advantage.
And thanks to the newer, more flexible equipment and designs you don’t have to take an all-or-nothing approach to automation. With a hybrid solution you can keep the flexibility of traditional picking while reducing labor, reducing travel time and optimizing space. Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) can be multi-purposed to handle both products coming into the dock in the morning and products shipping out the door in the afternoon.
These are not your father’s automation technologies. Systems have evolved to enable sophisticated routing and sorting of products using buffering to sequence products according to route stops and minimize work. Equipment that was once a challenge to operate in colder environments has improved reliability significantly. Wider adoption of these solutions has helped to make them more affordable as well.
Food distributors will need to explore and embrace automation technology options as order picking time windows compress further and competition for warehouse workers heats up. The next generation workforce not only expects high-tech solutions in the workplace, they come prepared with the skills to use the technology for greater speed and efficiencies in the warehouse. The future of food distribution will look more like the advanced retail DCs of today with unit sortation, goods-to-person and more efficient use of space.
Food distributors will need to explore and embrace automation technology options as order picking windows continue to compress further, SKU counts continue to grow, and the competition for warehouse workers heats up. The future of food distribution will require an evolution of distribution centers into more automated and highly optimized environments.
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