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Seven ways Warehouse Automation keeps food and beverage operations running smoothly

Efficiency is key in all warehouses, but especially in the food and beverage industry. If operations don’t run smoothly, products could spoil, waste money, and potentially endanger people’s health. It should be no surprise, then, that food and beverage supply chains have embraced warehouse automation.

Automation is growing in warehouses across industries, with food and beverage leading the trend. According to one survey, 94% of food packaging operations already use robotics, and half plan to increase their automation levels.

Here are seven ways how this warehouse automation trend is sustaining smooth operations in food and beverage.

Accounting for Labor Shortages

Like many industrial facilities, food and beverage warehouses face a growing labor shortage. Fewer people are entering the industry while demand rises, leaving companies short-staffed and facing rising personnel costs that exacerbate the issue. Warehouse automation mitigates these concerns by improving productivity without hiring more workers.

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and other autonomous machines can help the workers that facilities do have accomplish more at once. Consequently, food and beverage warehouses experience the benefits of a larger workforce despite their staff numbers remaining unchanged.

These benefits are particularly helpful during peak seasons. A warehouse may have sufficient staff during most periods, but some seasons bring higher demand. By renting or re-deploying robot fleets, these facilities can meet this higher demand without looking for hard-to-find seasonal workers.

Reducing Picking Time

Picking is often one of the most inefficient areas of any warehouse operation. This inefficiency creates further complications in food and beverage warehouses, as many of the handled goods have limited shelf lives. By automating picking processes, either in whole or in part, facilities can prevent spoilage and ensure optimal freshness.

Automated case picking systems can pick and palletize pallets with no direct labor even when pallet orders have mixed SKUs. Semi-automated solutions like pick-to-voice systems can also help, increasing accuracy by 50% and productivity by 10-15%. Picking automation systems are remarkably diverse, enabling any warehouse to find a solution that works for their needs and budget.

As food and beverage product offerings become increasingly varied, these automated picking solutions become all the more valuable. More efficient picking processes will help warehouses ensure specific SKUs reach their intended customers without sacrificing productivity.

Improving Inventory Management

Robots like AGVs (automated guided vehicles) may be the most recognizable examples of warehouse automation, but they’re not the only type. Food and beverage facilities also employ software-based automation solutions, particularly in inventory management. These automated inventory management systems improve visibility, enabling more timely and effective actions.

For example, smart bin-level management systems can provide immediate and reliable feedback about grain silo levels. These automatic updates help facilities see when they need to order more inventory or ship products nearing the end of their shelf life.

Automated warehouse management systems can also analyze operations to propose layout or workflow changes. These adjustments, in turn, help facilities optimize their operations. While a human analyst could theoretically provide the same service, automated solutions work far faster and provide ongoing improvements.

Optimizing Maintenance Schedules

Similarly, automated alerts over machine maintenance minimize disruptions in food and beverage operations. Predictive maintenance systems track equipment performance metrics to predict when a machine will need maintenance. These systems then automatically alert workers, informing better maintenance schedules.

In addition to preventing costly breakdowns, predictive maintenance prevents unnecessary equipment checkups, saving additional money. By automating the performance-monitoring process, warehouses free workers to focus on other tasks. Since they only schedule maintenance when it’s needed, they reduce unnecessary downtime, too.

These optimized maintenance schedules become increasingly valuable as facilities implement more machines. Automating this process ensures other automation reaches its full potential.

Preventing Safety Incidents

Warehouse automation also makes facilities safer, in turn ensuring smoother operations. Food and beverage companies can use robots to handle the most hazardous tasks, removing human workers from danger. With fewer injuries, facilities will have fewer disruptions, letting them achieve more consistent workflows.

Safety incidents have a massive impact on workplace efficiency. In 2019, workplace injuries led to 70 million lost days, not including time lost on the day of the injury or for future medical checkups. A such, preventing injuries doesn’t just protect workers; it ensures ongoing productivity.

The most prominent hazards in food and beverage warehouses are also in the most easily automated areas. Carrying heavy objects, reaching products at heights, and loading trucks can cause repetitive strain injuries and falls. But robots can handle most if not all of these tasks.

Raising Storage Density

As operational costs and demand rise, food and beverage warehouses must find ways to increase their storage density. Warehouse automation is the ideal solution here, as it can complete tasks without needing as much room as traditional means.

For example, automated vertical lift machines can substantially expand storage capacity by utilizing a warehouse’s height. Most of their infrastructure remains off the ground, leaving more room for inventory. Picking and moving items from the top would be impossible with manual processes, but automation makes it possible.

Since automated systems can move more nimbly and safely in tight spaces, they don’t need as much “buffer” room for safety’s sake. Consequently, food and beverage warehouse or distribution center managers can pack more items into the same space without sacrificing efficiency or safety. They can then meet higher demands while minimizing space costs.

Enabling Flexibility

While it may seem counterintuitive, warehouse automation can also improve flexibility. It’s true that human workers are more adaptable than machines, but automation lets them use this flexibility to their greatest potential.

Since automation improves efficiency in so many processes, it makes holding just-in-time inventory more feasible. Facilities can then decrease or diversify their on-site inventory, giving them more flexibility when demand shifts, changing processes or stock quickly. This advantage is crucial in food and beverage businesses, as just-in-time shipping maximizes shelf life.

Automation solutions like flow-through sortation improve the accuracy and timeliness of store replenishment, giving warehouses more time to adapt as necessary. Machines can handle the processes they do best while human workers change over tools, reorganize inventory, or make other changes. This collaboration, using each group according to their strengths, maximizes the benefits of both.

Warehouse Automation Is Essential in Today’s Food and Beverage Industry

The food and beverage industry is a fast-moving, often competitive sector. As demand in the industry grows and human labor becomes increasingly scarce, warehouse automation is becoming essential. Thanks to these benefits, automated systems are ensuring food and beverage warehouses operate smoothly despite ongoing challenges.

About the Author:

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. She has over four years covering stories about warehousing, logistics, and distribution.

Author: Emily Newton

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