Whether handling fresh milk or cheese, dairy distribution centers need to move products from receiving to dispatch with high speed and precision. These facilities require efficient, accurate order fulfillment to meet strict sell-by dates and to maximize the shelf life of goods for consumers. But for the many that rely on order pickers to manually fulfill orders, material flow often leaves much to be desired.

With manual distribution, staff have to pull products for orders, palletize, load and unload products and/or cases — for hours in cold environments. Fulfillment becomes dependent on the physical endurance of employees and is altogether too slow to meet the high demands of the food supply chain.

Today, automation offers a more modern solution. Equipped with the latest robotics and software, dairy distribution centers can optimize operations to address important aspects of the food business, including maximizing food freshness, improving the quality of work for employees and ensuring the safety of goods on the market.


Maximize product shelf life

Robotic systems can fulfill far more orders, at greater speeds, than what is humanly possible. As order volumes grow due to demand or seasonality, facilities can extend and scale up the number of robots as needed.

There are now also systems that combine buffer storage and order picking into a single, simultaneous operation for greater efficiencies. New products can arrive and be picked immediately, resulting in shorter lead times and fresher products with longer shelf lives.

Looking to improve efficiency and order accuracy, Denmark-based dairy company Arla chose to automate its Jönköping, Sweden, distribution center. The company installed an order-picking system that integrates buffer storage and order picking. Six robots mounted overhead pick orders by lifting the required number of crates from stacks and transferring them to an outfeed conveyor, which then moves them to dispatch.

Automation enables the distribution center to operate 24/7, delivering about 8,000 orders to 14,000 delivery points every week. Arla is able to realize lead times of 18 to 24 hours, with orders to nearby stores possible in under five. Of the 590 SKUs in Arla’s inventory, 75% are milk and cream products with under 30 days of shelf life, making the speed and accuracy of automation vital to its business.


Improve ergonomic conditions

Dairy producers are no strangers to the struggles of the wide-felt labor shortages in distribution. As more baby boomers retire and jobseekers show less interest in warehousing careers, a widening gap is emerging between available jobs and the labor pool. Much of the disinterest stems from concerns with on-the-job injury and long-term damages from physical strain.

With robots doing the heavy lifting, automation can fill the labor gap and improve ergonomic conditions for employees. Jobs shift from hard labor to more sophisticated, technology-driven duties such as supervising operations, picking sequence and transport planning, and maintenance — which are a bigger draw for new graduates.

When building a liquid milk plant, American supermarket chain Kroger wanted a facility with minimal human involvement to reduce employee risk of injury. Kroger invested in an end-to-end automated warehousing solution. Integrated with a warehouse control system (WCS) that serves as the brains behind the operations, robotic order pickers handle stacks of plastic dairy cases.

Cases are picked according to the WCS’ sequences from one end of the facility and then palletized for loading at the other. The solution streamlines product flow and provides Kroger with 100% order accuracy and improved labor savings. This innovative design earned Kroger a 2015 Plant of the Year award from Dairy Foods.


Enhance food safety and traceability

Today, companies and regulatory bodies are placing greater focus on food traceability to protect consumers in the event of a food recall. If a dairy producer were hit by a recall, traceability can mitigate the costs and damages by enabling a more targeted recall (retrieving only affected products rather than everything) so fewer products go to waste in destruction. Further, effective recall management can restore consumer confidence and protect brand reputation.

A WCS supports food safety by collecting extensive data on every order and product shipped out of a facility. This data not only help in analyzing and improving warehouse operations, but also provide trackable insight.

Recently, Synlait Milk, a young New Zealand-based dairy, made plans to automate a new liquid milk production facility in Dunsandel, New Zealand. At the system’s core, Synlait plans to incorporate a WCS to collect traceable data to support food safety requirements, as well as provide control over inventory management and picking operations.

Dairy producers need fast, accurate and reliable fulfillment — where manual operations can no longer suffice. But with a combination of automated equipment and advanced software, companies can realize a modern, ergonomically sound distribution center, ready and able to deliver fresh, safe products to consumers.