- Supply chain services provider McLane Co. opened its newest and most technologically advanced grocery distribution center on Dec. 1 in Findlay, Ohio, according to The Shelby Report. The $150 million facility will employ 400 to 500 workers, with automated systems allowing the company to pick 325,000 products each day at peak operation.
- As products speed along conveyor belts at up to 60 miles per hour, McLane's robots read bar codes and sort items for storage and delivery. Facility workers control and program the robots, which load and organize products into bins based on where the products are heading. In all, the facility holds 16,000 products from 700 different suppliers.
- “Of our 80 grocery and foodservice distribution centers nationwide, the Findlay facility is the most technologically advanced, combining teammates, state-of-the-art automation, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence,” McLane Grocery president Tony Frankenberger said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, reports The Selby Report.
Across the food industry, automation is changing the way companies do business. Robots increasingly are taking over supply chain duties, with those at use in McLane’s newest distribution center representing the latest example.
The purpose of deploying robots and automating processes is to boost production and efficiency. It also optimizes warehouse employees, enabling them to do more innovative work rather than mundane tasks like picking and sorting products.. An article by Biz417 posted on McLane’s website says that machines like robotic pallet exchangers and stretch wrapping stations allow for uniformity within the DC and keep employees from having to do many cumbersome tasks.
In one hour, an employee can wrap 10 pallets, whereas a robotic arm can wrap 40 in the same time span, according to the Biz417 article.
Robotic cranes, meanwhile, allow McLane to store products 105 feet above the ground — a height too dangerous for workers alone to manage. “We believe we’ve helped, not hindered, them,” Robbie Wainwright, vice president of logistics engineering, told Biz417, in reference to the company's workers. “We’re not looking to eliminate our teammates’ jobs.”
As store and supply chain technology advances, retailers and foodservice companies are automating more of their processes in an effort to cut costs while also raising productivity and customer service levels. Amazon is widely considered the leader in this movement, and with good reason: The company said at the end of last year that it had at least 45,000 robots working in its warehouses.
Online bulk retailer Boxed has deployed a robotic package picking system at its fulfillment center in New Jersey. The company reportedly spent almost two years planning the automation project, creating its own fulfillment software system and purchasing iBots to take over package picking, a move expected to result in a six-fold productivity increase.
Robots are also being trialed inside grocery stores to handle routine tasks as retailers seek to improve efficiency and service levels. The biggest test of in-store robots is happening at Walmart, where the company is trialing shelf-scanning robots in 50 stores. Regional retailers Schnucks and Ahold Delhaize's Giant have also introduced in-store robots that glide up and down aisles checking prices and inventory levels.
Russian supermarket Lenta is taking the use of robots further, introducing them in a customer-facing role. The chain’s customer service “Promobots” have been deployed inside stores to interact with shoppers, offering information on store promotions, demonstrating new products and even greeting regular customers thanks to facial recognition software.
The productivity benefits associated with the use of technology and robots are clear, but there remains a lingering concern that humans will be left on the sidelines. It's up to companies to address these concerns while also maintaining their focus on effective, cost-saving production methods.