Fresh produce warehouse automation: are you missing an opportunity?

 

Maintaining an efficient supply chain is all-important in the fresh produce industry. Such is the limited shelf life of fresh produce, being able to move it quickly and efficiently can be the difference between thriving and struggling. A poorly functioning supply chain will always lead to wastage and loss of profit.

The single biggest thing a business can do to reduce the risk of this is to make improvements to its warehouse.

What is warehouse automation?

The freshness of produce once it reaches retailers is primarily influenced by two factors - the environment it has been stored in and the speed of transit. Nowhere is it more important to be quick, organised and efficient than in the warehouse; but the temperature and humidity produce is kept in is equally important.

The warehouse environment can be a complex one. As a fresh produce business grows, so will the complexity of these challenges - if you don’t adapt to them first, they will eat into your efficiency and profit potential. In an industry where producers are under pressure from all sides, integrating technology into warehouse processes could provide your business with a key edge. Warehouse automation for fresh produce can be split into two categories.

Business process automation

Process automation, quite simply, digitalises the processes of the warehouse. For instance, delivery schedules, produce tracking and inventory management are taken out of the hands of people with clipboards and managed on systems capable of calculating the most efficient course of action at speed and scale.

Software can transform a warehouse not just through overhauling simple logistics, but by fully integrating with all company operations, from growing to distribution. The power of this process automation through software lies in the fact that efficiency savings can be made at the top level, while the needs of staff on an individual level are still being catered to.

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) makes this a reality, providing a single platform from which every aspect of the business can be overseen and harmonised. ERP allows fresh produce businesses to build automated solutions into their systems quickly. Meanwhile, services like Microsoft’s Azure IoT Hub can export the ‘single point of truth’ that ERP provides to as many devices as required with personalised experiences for different staff based on their needs and roles.

Robotics

The role of robotics in a fresh produce warehouse is to automate the mechanical processes. This relates to the physical movement and storage of pallets (e.g. utilising driverless vehicle technology). In any case, a rollout of robotics packages will need to incorporate the business process automation we discussed previously.

While a limited level of robotics may improve efficiency in most warehouses, full-scale adoption of robotics is likely only to be viable for the biggest facilities. For fresh produce businesses of small-to-medium size, the returns to be gained simply won’t outweigh the cost of what is still an expensive outlay.

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Advantages of warehouse automation

The advantages of automation in the warehouse come not from reinventing the wheel, but from improving the existing processes. Here are some of the biggest improvements that can come from automation:

Reduce operating costs

Automation can improve profit margins most notably by helping to reduce a company’s expenditure - mainly in terms of labour and equipment. Software that automates record-keeping, for instance, might represent a significant investment, but one that may only have to be made once every 20 years.

Many fresh produce businesses already struggle to maintain a large enough human workforce - often leading to a reliance on short-term staff on unpredictable overtime pay. Automating processes that would otherwise have to be taken on by people, or using automation to increase the capacity of the existing workforce, brings down costs and stops the churn of staff, bringing stability to a business.

Increase speed and reduce wastage

Efficient supply chains move quicker than inefficient ones. This uncomplicated fact is nonetheless a vital one - and is especially pertinent in the fresh produce industry. As discussed, the most impactful thing a business can do to speed things up is to make changes in its warehouse.

Speed is important to a fresh produce business in extremely tangible ways. Produce that is stored for too long or delivered inefficiently will deteriorate and rot resulting in wasted profit. Supporting staff in receiving, processing, storing and ultimately dispatching produce more quickly has to be the ultimate aim - automation, both software-based and physical, can improve this.

But increasing speed isn’t just about mitigating the risk of wastage - it can open up new profit avenues. Certain items can be sold at differing levels of freshness, meaning if a company can guarantee fast enough delivery it can start selling the same produce at a more premium price.

Increase capacity

A warehouse is a complicated and constantly-changing place. While storing pallets may seem a simple task, in practice it is often done in a way that compromises space. Space is at a premium and the more capacity a business can squeeze out of its warehouse, the more it can sell.

Robots can be programmed to store produce more efficiently, operating in smaller and tighter spaces than human workers could. But even if robotics isn’t a part of your warehouse operation, automation can still help to increase capacity. ERP can bring together logistical information, as well as data on the specific requirements of each line of produce, to create a mutually beneficial storage plan.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of the benefits of warehouse automation, instead an illustration of how it can revolutionise a fresh produce business’ logistical efficiency. ERP can prove critical in facilitating such a large-scale overhaul, helping to integrate new systems into existing operations with ease.

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