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UK supply chains: the robots are coming!

How is the need for speed driving investment in supply chain automation

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Has the food and grocery industry finally shaken off past demons to embrace supply chain automation? Laura John, Supply Chain Business Analyst, shares her thoughts.

Automated supply chains in food and grocery are relatively few and far between, with many of the big grocery retailers tending to shy away from fully automated distribution centres (DCs).

It’s easy to see why. There have been some instances in the industry of automated installations causing the supply chain to fail, so retailers and manufacturers have been cautious.

However this trend doesn’t always apply. Spanish retailer Eroski, for example, has operated a successful automated picking system at its Madrid DC for fresh produce for a number of years, allowing it to significantly shorten lead times and reduce inventory levels.

Source: Eroski

Lidl also has a highly sophisticated automated picking operation at its DC in Kirchheim unter Teck, near Stuttgart; as well as automating picking, a case packing system optimally stacks pallets for transport to store.

With memories of bad implementations fading, it definitely feels like the tides are changing in favour of greater automation in the food supply chain.

Online

This need for speed, especially in the online world, is largely driving investment in automated solutions.

In this arena, Ocado is surely at the forefront, recently revealing a massive leap forward in its warehouse automation technology. Hundreds of thousands of crates and 1,000 different machines can now be controlled in real-time and in parallel, wirelessly. This has significantly increased DC efficiency and slashed the amount of time it takes from customer click to the order being loaded to the delivery van.

Similarly, Tesco is continuously improving its dotcom facilities – with the latest ones in Crawley and Erith featuring the most high-tech systems. Pickers no longer walk around with trolleys picking items; the products are extracted from the storage area and taken to the picker at exactly the time it needs to be picked. This has had a huge impact on picking efficiency and meant shoppers have a wider range of products to choose online.

Source: Tesco

Robotics

The use of robotics is also providing a new, more flexible way to automate specific tasks in a DC.

DHL Supply Chain is piloting technology that automates its picking operation in Unna, Germany, where a fully automated trolley follows pickers through the DC and once fully loaded is sent to a designated drop-off location.

Source: Effidence YouTube channel

This low-risk way of introducing some form of automation/robotics is surely a test-bed for all operators.

Making small, incremental changes across the DC estate can add up to significant improvement in overall supply chain efficiency. In today’s low growth environment that is not to be sniffed at, and it will be interesting to see how supply chains continue to evolve to meet the challenges that the changing retail landscape continues to present. 

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