Automatic Decisions
by Lynn Petrak
Software and hardware systems provide real solutions and savings in dairy warehouses.
These days, it is not the stuff of science fiction but of daily operations that machines and robotics are moving things along in refrigerated warehouses, as intelligent computers track all things in and out.
Indeed, just because products are neatly lined in racks and shelves doesn’t mean that there isn’t much going on in cold storage. Such sites happen to be the focus of a host of technological advances.
Several factors have contributed to the upgrade of automated systems for use in dairy warehouses, from safety concerns to shifting demands from parties throughout cold chain. From a quality and food safety standpoint, automation can help control variables that can cause out-of-date or spoilage problems. “Some challenges remain in perishability, but automation can better control it than manual methods, having someone running around on the floor with a book pulling cases,” says Len DeWeerdt, vice president for business development for warehouse solutions company Retrotech Inc., Fishers, N.Y.
Automatic systems, run by software and managed through automatic and/or robotic equipment, literally have built-in advantages over various human-directed functions. “Traceability is something that you can’t accomplish on a manual basis. Automated coding, whether it’s bar coding or RFID (radio frequency identification) means automatic data collection. And data that is inaccurate doesn’t cut it with today’s USDA and FDA requirements,” says Patrick Pilz, president and chief executive officer of warehousing software and equipment provider CSB Systems, San Diego.
In addition to accuracy and traceability, another reason dairy processors have invested in automated storage, retrieval and shipping systems is the changing requirement from customers throughout the cold chain, including third-party distribution centers, retail outlets and foodservice operations.  “Certainly, the distribution market in the food industry is growing in terms of delivering product in layers,” explains Dan Labell, president of Westfalia Technologies Inc., a York, Pa.-based supplier of warehouse equipment, software and solutions.
The “Wal-Mart factor” isn’t likely to fade away, either. “My opinion is that there is more sophistication. It’s not only Wal-Mart organization getting orders the way they want it when they wan it, but others who also want that,” DeWeerdt says. “That pressure will be felt at the processing plant.”
The availability of technology that helps ensure proper order fulfillment and rapidly tracks products down to the shelf is something that many dairies have evaluated in recent times. The most frequent barrier to moving ahead with greater automation is cost.
Capital investment required to build or overhaul an automated cold-storage facility can give some processors pause. That said, there is a tangible return on investment, say those in the industry. “When you do automation, the savings you have are in manual handling and space,” Pilz says. “The savings in space enable a company to grow with investment, and as labor costs rise, people will be forced to do more automation to compete.”
According to Labell, the nature of the dairy business lends itself to a “less is more” philosophy for storage. “This industry has traditionally had a percentage of business invested in automation and that may be partly environmental, because there are a lot of coolers and freezers. So there is more willingness to reduce cube or square footage of a warehouse,” he says.
DeWeerdt, too, says many dairies understand there are real savings and, hence, profits to be had with capital improvements. “Processors have had tolerance in the industry for long-term investment before,” he says. “If you can reduce the size of a warehouse by 50 or 60 percent, that is big.”
Much of the current investment in sophisticated automated warehouse systems comes from high-volume dairies with expansive distribution networks. “The ongoing consolidation in the industry makes companies larger, and changes the economies of scale in investing in automation,” Pilz says, adding that automation is less frequently pursued by lower-volume dairies, including those with a range of bottle and container types.
All Systems Go
Dairy processors looking to cut floor space and, with it, space and labor costs, have plenty of options in cold-storage upgrades, from automated storage and retrieval (AS/RS) systems to the use of high-tech coding systems to regularly updated software.
Case and pallet handling is one area of recent improvements in automation. Westfalia, for instance, has enhanced its pallet-handling systems. “We are selling more systems with two cranes in one aisle. The configuration lends itself more for going multiple deep,” says Labell, noting that Westfalia has developed another system that stores and retrieves layers in AS/RS systems without the use of a pallet.
Last year, Vancouver, Wash.-based Columbia Okura LLC, introduced new robotic palletizers that can handle cases and pails without the need to change tooling. The robot uses a flexible vacuum-grip system to adapt to various pail and case sizes, while the small footprint allows the system to fit into existing production areas.
Warehouse management software is another hot spot in cold storage solutions. Westfalia recently released the fourth version of its savanna.net package. “It takes advantage of the dot-net framework and reduces development time for customization,” Labell explains, adding that there is a reason why software packages in the storage industry are so often upgraded. “Usually, warehouse management systems don’t have hundreds of users and are not really interfacing with a database, so they need to be upgraded every six months or a year. You need to stay ahead of the times.”
CSB Systems, meanwhile, has upgraded its own warehouse management software to allow for greater customization and in turn, tweaked some of its equipment. “If they need specific requirements to run, like an ice cream plant that runs in subzero temperatures, we have also have specific hardware systems,” Pilz says.
An emerging area of automated warehousing addresses extended-shelf-life (ESL) products, which pose a unique set of benefits and challenges. “ESL companies are typically producing large lot quantities, more inventories, to make production runs longer and we can economically store those in a dense configuration,” Labell says of Westfalia’s capabilities.
Likewise, DeWeerdt sees dairy manufacturers’ forays entry into the ESL marketplace as key to greater use of automation. “I think long-life product and improvements in pasteurization will be a driving force where technologies like what we do become more meaningful,” he says. “Even if you are just shipping pallets, which a lot of long-life products can be, once that velocity reaches a certain point, you can build a facility with a third of the size and people, and see a much higher return and lower cost.”
As for the future, while some dairies continue to investigate the implementation of RFID tags in warehousing systems, others point to that technology’s limitations in reading liquid products and its comparatively high cost of inventor management. Improvements in automation for cold storage likely will continue to hinge on maximizing space while reducing labor and costs per case or pallet.
DeWeerdt, for his part, predicts another potential development. “I think you will see more voice activation, which is friendly in the (dairy) environment,” he says. “Voice activation can make the work force more productive with communication.
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.