Automation for Sustainable Food Retail

13th December 2023

Logistics BusinessAutomation for Sustainable Food Retail

Micro-fulfilment centres, warehouse temperature sensors, and layer picking solutions are key ways food retailers are automating logistics to improve efficiency, sustainability, and food safety. Supply chain automation involves using technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning to streamline tasks and systems, eliminating the need for humans, and improving speed and accuracy. For instance, Dutch food retailer, Jumbo runs a 45,000-square-metre automated dry-goods-handling warehouse capable of fulfilling two million case picks per week, therefore successfully reducing costs by 15%, McKinsey reveals.

Micro-fulfilment centres

A micro-fulfilment centre (MFC) is a small-scale, automated warehouse usually found in densely-populated urban locations in order to better serve consumers. MFCs ensure shorter and faster delivery routes with greater flexibility in terms of delivery options for consumers. For instance, consumers can choose to pick up their groceries in a locker, click-and-collect in-store, or have their order delivered straight to their home. MFCs are either installed and operated in stand-alone locations, within existing stores, or attached to stores. Typically, in a MCF, a robotic goods-to-person system involving fixed or autonomous mobile robots is used to bring items to warehouse workers. The worker then moves the product to the customer bag as needed, verifying the final order is accurate and in good condition (for instance, meat should be packaged at the correct temperature, while fruit should also be bruise-free). An MFC picks around 350-500 items per hour on average, taking between seven to ten seconds to move each product, data from MWPVL International, a supply chain consultancy, reveals. In comparison, human workers take roughly 75 seconds to pick just one item, or numerous items of the same kind (like two jars of peanut butter, for instance). MFCs therefore drastically improve speed and efficiency.

MFCs are also key for maintaining sustainable food logistics operations moving forward. For instance, a recent study by Accenture and Frontier Economics found that if MFCs were used to fulfil 50% of London’s e-commerce orders over the next five years, they would slash delivery traffic by 13%, resulting in 320 million fewer miles driven by delivery vehicles. Delivery vehicle-generated emissions in London would also decrease by 17% by 2025 — the equivalent of taking as many as 15,000 cars off the road for good.

Temperature sensors in cold storage warehousing

Cold storage warehousing — warehouses typically used to store fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish — is also being automated with the use of temperature sensors, therefore facilitating precise temperature regulation. Cold storage warehouses are a useful way to store perishable goods, while also minimising risk of deterioration, although precise temperatures are essential for ensuring optimal conditions. By installing wireless temperature sensors throughout the warehouse (including both areas designated for food storage, as well as other key areas), the warehouse operator will be immediately alerted to fluctuations that surpass a pre-set temperature threshold, so corrective action can be taken as needed. In turn, temperature sensors help ensure food safety, protect goods, prevent wastage, and save money. Temperature sensors also generate real-time status updates, graphs, reports, and audit trails that can be viewed on the corresponding app.

Layer pick solutions

Cold storage warehouses can also benefit from layer picking systems able to access a huge volume of inventory with a single robot, and assemble a select mix of goods onto a single pallet — therefore eliminating the need for manual picking. An effective mode of automation, layer pick solutions are capable of moving both horizontally and vertically, successfully improve efficiency, and lower costs in cold storage warehouses, particularly compared to manual labour. Robots can specifically create “rainbow pallets” (also called “mixed stock keeping unit pallets”) made up of different layers of inventory based on the customer’s order. In addition to being fast, quiet, and equipped with load stability, these robots are also flexible, which means cold storage warehouses can therefore be in a better position to handle unexpected market changes thanks to this adaptable tech.

The latest innovations in automation technology are working to make food retail practices more efficient and sustainable. Micro-fulfilment centres, temperature sensors, and layer pick solutions, in particular, are key technologies successfully streamlining the food retail supply chain, maximising productivity, and minimising waste.