Food In Canada

What’s driving automation growth in fresh food distribution?

By Adam Gurga   

Automation Editor pick Food distribution

Within the modern food manufacturing plant, automation enables fast, efficient, and cost-effective production processes. And the benefits of automation go far beyond the production side of things. Automation can also make a big impact in food distribution—including powering better, faster order fulfillment for fresh and perishable foods.

Automated order fulfillment solutions can be installed within the distribution end of food manufacturing facilities or in stand-alone distribution centres (DCs). While previous generations of automation couldn’t meet the need for speed and safety when it came to fresh foods, modern systems are now changing the game. These solutions can take over the entire distribution process from the moment products come off the production line. All order fulfillment functions run as part of one fast, seamless operation—from receiving and storage to picking, palletizing and shipping.

This streamlined setup is ideal for facilities like produce processing plants, dairy plants, and commercial bakeries, where product freshness depends on the speed of order fulfillment. With automation distributing fresh products as quickly and efficiently as possible, food manufacturers can ultimately satisfy customers with optimal quality, freshness, and shelf-life.

As customer demands and supply chain challenges grow, we’ll see more and more food manufacturers turning to automation. Here are a few key factors that will drive automation adoption the remainder of this year and beyond.


Labour shortages

For years, labour shortages have been a big problem across Canada. Factors driving these shortages include economic impacts and a generation of workers looking to retire. And it’s not just the 65-and-over crowd hanging up their tool belts. According to a study by Statistics Canada, a record number of Canadians aged 55 to 64 retired in the last 12 months.

Staffing shortages hit hard for production facilities and DCs with a traditional distribution setup, where fresh food orders are still picked and prepared by hand. As older workers retire, facility managers struggle to find jobseekers interested in taking on such physically demanding and potentially dangerous work. When new hires do come on board, they rarely stay long. Many quit within a few months, leaving companies right back at square one. Staffing problems only grow worse during peak seasons or when demand unexpectedly spikes. Orders flood in, yet facilities don’t have enough staff to keep distribution operations running smoothly.

To tackle these problems, food manufacturers are filling the gaps in their distribution operations through automation. Robotic solutions can take over all fresh food handling tasks, maximizing throughput even when demand spikes and labour is scarce.

Of course, this doesn’t mean human employees are no longer needed. Instead of doing heavy lifting, employees can take on safer, less strenuous jobs like operating, supervising, and maintaining the automated equipment. These types of engaging roles will create better satisfaction for existing employees, plus help attract young jobseekers who want to work with technology.

Shrinking storage space 

Over the years, food manufacturers have expanded their portfolios to meet consumer demand for variety. This means more products, more flavours, and more packaging sizes. Unfortunately, their DCs weren’t designed to house so much inventory, and they’re now running out of storage space. Instead of dealing with the time and costs involved in moving to a bigger building, some companies are using automation to get the most out of what they already have.

Automated systems that incorporate high-density, floor-based storage can accommodate more products—while ensuring every SKU is still easily accessible. Within these systems, all fresh and perishable products are housed in sturdy plastic crates. Overhead gantry robots stack the crates in designated storage areas, directly on the warehouse floor. There are no shelving systems or aisles to eat up valuable space. When a specific SKU is needed for an order, the gantry robots rapidly access the right crate from overhead. This type of system takes up 50 per cent less space than a typical setup, leaving room for future growth.

Safety and sanitation standards 

Facilities that handle fresh food need to comply with the Safe Food for Canadians Act (SFCA) and its regulations. Traceability is a big part of compliance, and automation can help. As fresh food moves through an automated facility, a warehouse management system (WMS) automatically captures unique barcode data for each product. All data gets saved to a database. If any recall occurs, grocers can quickly trace the affected products’ distribution path.

When fresh products come off the production line or enter the DC, they’re immediately moved by robots into temperature-controlled storage areas. The products are ready for picking right away, which reduces the chance of spoilage.

On top of it all, some automated systems can speed the facility sanitation process. With solutions that use overhead gantry robots and floor-based storage, there are no racks or shelves to collect dust and dirt. If there’s an accidental spill, or when it’s time for routine sanitation, gantry robots clear the floor completely. It just takes minutes, and everything is wide open for easy cleaning.

Sustainability goals

Sustainability has become a hot topic in every industry, and many consumers prefer to support companies that take greater responsibility for their environmental and social impacts. Some consumers will even pay more to support sustainability. In one survey by PwC Canada, 64 per cent of Canadian consumers said they would pay a premium for products made from recycled, sustainable, or eco-friendly materials, and 63 per cent said the same for products produced by a company with a reputation for ethical practices.

Automation can help fresh food brands support their sustainability goals in multiple ways:

  • by accelerating the speed of fresh goods to stores, manufacturers can minimize premature spoilage and prevent food waste;
  • energy-efficient automated equipment can reduce energy usage within production facilities and DCs; and
  • automated systems that handle fresh food in reusable plastic crates reduce the need for on-time-use materials like cardboard boxes.

These are just a few of the many possibilities.

New cost-effective approaches

Finally, new solutions and strategies are lowering the cost barrier for automation adoption. Many companies believe automating means massive implementations, high costs, and long timelines. Others are concerned that they’ll invest in an expensive solution, only to outgrow its capacity down the road. But with today’s innovative modular solutions, neither has to be the case.

Modular solutions are built with individual, pre-engineered cells of automation. The modules can be arranged to fit any facility footprint—even older buildings that have been in operation for years. Since each module can run independently, food manufacturers and distributors can take a phased approach to implementation. They can start by automating processes that will generate the biggest and quickest ROI, while the rest of their facility operates as usual. Then, they’ll be able to add more modules over time as needs change or business grows. With a modular solution, the benefits of automation are easier and less costly to achieve.

Fresh food supply chains of the future

It’s a challenging, yet exciting time to be part of the fresh food supply chain. Automation and other emerging technologies are creating so many new opportunities for food manufacturers to optimize supply chain processes, improve business performance, and better satisfy customers. Fresh and perishable food distribution is one great place to focus their modernization efforts.

Adam Gurga is sales manager for North America, Cimcorp.

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