In today’s tight labor market, many warehouses and distribution centers are facing talent shortages on top of operational challenges. Aging industry veterans are rapidly retiring, yet facilities need more staff than ever to meet rising order fulfillment demands. These facilities must compete for qualified workers from a limited labor pool, resulting in numerous unfilled positions that hinder productivity.

One major factor leading to declining interest in manual positions in warehouses and distribution centers is the physically demanding nature of the work. Young jobseekers are deterred by the potential of on-the-job injuries. This concern is not unwarranted — an estimated 5.1 out of every 100 warehouse workers experience injuries or work-related illnesses each year.


The risks in manual handling

Risks are particularly high in traditional, manual facilities where employees pick orders by hand. Order pickers spend the workday performing labor-intensive tasks: traveling through aisles to pull products, loading and unloading cases, palletizing orders, etc. In dairy facilities, these tasks are often performed for hours in a harsh, cold environment.

Such activities subject the human body to repetitive, strenuous motions and heavy lifting. Workers commonly experience minor injuries (strains, sprains and pulled muscles), but they can also suffer serious chronic conditions over time.

On top of labor issues, a number of other challenges have put added strain on manual facilities and their staff:

  • Need for freshness: Whether handling milk, cheese or other dairy products, facilities need to accelerate order fulfillment to meet strict sell-by dates and maximize shelf life. This means meeting very short lead times.
  • SKU proliferation: Facilities must now house growing inventories to meet consumer demand for more product variation. Just think of the variety of dairy goods you see in grocery stores today: options such as “lactose-free,” “organic” and “low-fat,” along with numerous sizes, packaging and flavor choices.  
  • Seasonal peaks: Warehouses and distribution centers need the capacity to keep up with orders during the busiest times of the year. In manual facilities, existing staff often wind up working extra hours or overnight shifts to keep up with the spike in orders.

To address these challenges, dairy producers should evaluate how ergonomically sound their facilities are — and then invest in technology to create safer, more productive workplace environments.


Improve ergonomics through warehouse automation

Advanced systems — such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs), conveyors, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RSs) and order picking solutions — can now take over the dangerous and demanding tasks of order fulfillment. These systems can rapidly and accurately move goods through a facility — limiting or entirely eliminating human involvement.

Automation fills any gaps created by insufficient staffing. The right systems can enable facilities to access a greater volume of inventory while using less space, shorten lead times to deliver fresher products to market, and easily ramp up throughput during busy peak seasons. 


So, what does this mean for the warehouse worker?

With robots doing the heavy lifting, employees can take on new value-added roles. These include operating and maintaining equipment, supervising operations, reviewing performance data, selecting picking sequences, performing transport planning, etc.

Jobseekers are more drawn to these careers where they can apply technical skills, attracting a new wave of talent. These elevated responsibilities are also more satisfying for existing staff, who enjoy a safer work environment.


How Arla enhanced speed and safety with automation

In light of these industry challenges, many large dairy brands are now looking to automate. Denmark-based dairy company Arla is a notable example. Faced with a growing product range and outdated processes, Arla wanted to automate product handling in its Jönköping, Sweden, distribution center.

Arla installed an automated solution that combines buffer storage and order picking. The robots efficiently lift the required number of crates from a stack and transfer them to an outfeed conveyor, which then transports them to dispatch. Notably, Arla is able to realize lead times of 18-24 hours, with orders to nearby outlets possible in under five hours. Faster handling means maximum product freshness for consumers.

Previously, working conditions for Arla’s staff were strenuous as a result of constant heavy lifting. Many workers experienced significant health problems — most often being shoulder injuries. Now that the heavy loads are handled by automation, staff are safer. They are also more satisfied taking on challenging yet engaging job roles supervising automation.

Like Arla, today’s dairy producers could implement automation to overcome the many challenges taxing their facilities. The right system can not only eliminate ergonomic hazards for existing staff, but also attract new tech-savvy talent and optimize operations with modern equipment.

Because there is no one-size-fits-all solution, companies should work with a solutions provider experienced in dairy distribution. They can develop an automation strategy so that your facility can run with speed, precision and safety at all times.