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Automation in the cold chain

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Mobile racking is another perfect example of automated storage in the cold chain. It increases utilisation of footprint. Image credit: Cold Link Afirca | Benjamin Brits
Mobile racking is another perfect example of automated storage in the cold chain. It increases utilisation of footprint. Image credit: Cold Link Afirca | Benjamin Brits

By Benjamin Brits

Over the last few years, the rapid progression of technology has enabled a far different picture when it comes to the way industries are now able to function.

If we had to take a realistic snapshot for context locally, automation has, for a long time, been considered unjustly in relation to its impact on employment opportunities, however, endless studies have shown this not to be the case – particularly important when we are in a cycle where costs around the world are on the rise and finding solutions to mitigate the expenses in producing goods and their movement along the supply chain continue to become a reality.

A growing phenomenon playing directly into this subject is the factor that as certain generations exit industries through retirement or adopting other roles, that there is a significant drop in interest for labour-related work, work considered monotonous or dangerous. On the converse the willing and available workforce’s rates are increasing above proportions of other sectors owing to demand, thus contributing heavily to input costs – which at the end of the day generally are transferred onto the consumers.

A good example here I heard of recently is that in the UK, large global distributors are paying nearly double minimum wage to anyone that can “lift and move up to 25 kilograms of goods,” as they desperately seek employees to fulfil orders. This means either that the company needs to absorb those additional labour costs, or that the goods will come at a premium to clients – that are already subject to increasing prices for any sort of quality product.

Many years ago now – nearly 70 in fact, the development of automation was initiated as a means to support consistency, improve outputs in many sectors, as well as to ease certain stressful tasks for workers. The process began with the use of shuttle boxes operating on a tow-system as well as pallet trolleys and lifts that were primarily used to load goods onto trains.

Fast-forward to current era means the impact of globalisation, development of various computer technologies and growing connectivity have dominated the storage and logistics progress in this century to date. The term “supply chain management” entered the arena and is now broadly used to reference strategy, planning and execution of the movement of goods or logistics collectively.

Technology has also grown from simple tasks to being able to control outcomes and tracking parameters in real-time through some quite diverse and complicated systems. This provides an additional level of transparency and information for suppliers and customers alike which has moved up the list of demands that are classed as important in today’s scene.

Looking to the future then, it is inevitable that technology will continue to support faster and more complex flows of all goods, services, supplies and information to wider and larger groups of clients and consumers. Moreover, it is further highly likely based on evolving and emerging trends that connectivity, artificial intelligence, and automation in its various levels as a result, will become a prominent element of businesses in the cold chain too.

Fresh and frozen produce and pharmaceutical volumes, as well as new agricultural methods such as vertical farming will also increase as the world’s population expands exponentially. By 2050 forecasts are an excess of a 20% increase to just under 10-billion people over current numbers. 30 years is a short timeframe to plan and scale everything from the field to the fork for such changes, particularly in Africa that is known for very slow progress.

Continuous evolution as we have seen in the sector over time requires continuous innovation. Modern solutions and technology essentially enable such innovation to take place and open up further benefits through potential enhancements in user experiences, taking fast action towards altered industry dynamics, greater data generation, and integration possibilities to stay ahead of potential challenges. The covid-19 pandemic has also meant a total shift in thinking, consumption, and planning – above the forced adoption of other digital technologies to keep up.

If you were wondering about the growth of automation around the world – in 2021 the reported market value for the sector was nearly USD192-billion and over the next eight years, the projection is that its value will be worth approximately USD400-billion. So, demand is significant, and growing fast.

An automation adoption strategy

When considering automation in the cold chain, one would need to understand what is available to assist any facility in meeting their objectives. This may include cost reduction of production or overall efficiency by output increases. It is clear that turnaround or handling time has become of utmost importance in quality and delivery. Automation has therefore risen as a critical element nowadays in meeting these demands and navigating the erratic market and climatic conditions seen of late.

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The solutions continue to evolve and with more and more choices on the market from competing providers, operators throughout the chain face an increasingly complex decision when selecting the automation solutions that are right for their application. This can be from as early as harvesting technology, the sorting lines on the farm, to partly-autonomous facilities, the choice of handling equipment, and even the termed ‘darkstores’ found in many locations today (darkstores refer to storage facilities where little to no human involvement is present and make use of extensive automation processes and systems).

How does a business approach the ‘scary’ concept of automation then? It is indeed a process that may involve many unknowns and unlike the growth of technology such as smart phones, watches and appliances, or even the simplest things like website software and the clever apps we use today, any degree of automation will come as a significant step from older traditional methods and may even require adoption of things such as ‘change management’ and ‘staff support interventions’, to name a few.

The engagement of specialised professional consulting service businesses locally is of course the appropriate starting point where they will be able to discuss several factors relating to a client’s particular need. They will be able to demonstrate successfully delivered solutions, or similar solutions to what is needed, as for example some products – although totally different – have the same fundamental handling requirements. One particular note of awareness from such suppliers is that often clients will rightly want references but demand unrealistic values or sites to be presented to them with their exact specifications, however as each facility varies in product, volumes, size and location – this is not always possible.

What a professional provider can engage in detail on would fall into the following considerations for each facility – noting that it is not always practicable to simply duplicate systems at different locations:

  • Understanding the particular site strategy and regular operations
  • Identify possible process improvements
  • Consider existing protocols or warehouse management systems
  • Look at various designs and implementation or automation
  • Provide appropriate material handling/intralogistics concepts and related equipment
  • Discuss all of the maintenance and service aspects of automation
  • Establish protocols on risk and safety management aspects, and
  • Compile necessary safety training and facility audits.

The next step of advice that companies interested in automation should take is that, “It can be easy to get bogged down in many features of automation that are in fact irrelevant to a client’s need.” These could include such things as speed of travel of a shuttle up and down the rows which, in reality, has little impact on a throughput calculation. What would be more important is how a system is designed and installed, and therefore its ability to effectively handle product with minimal intervention.

In applications where higher handling volumes are demanded, the speed of a shuttle cannot eliminate facility bottlenecks, where a multi-lift system would be a better holistic solution to maximise operations. Similarly, error correction through auto repositioning of a shuttle that is misaligned or where goods are misaligned would be a more relevant factor to consider in order to continue operations without manual intervention. Condition monitoring can also be a valuable feature for such systems. With a lot of moving parts, the ability to continuously monitor components can maximise system utilisation.

The idea of facility automation must essentially fulfil the functions of more efficient harvesting, sorting, packing and picking, rapid storage and retrieval times, and importantly improved facility safety. These are also some of the main benefits of automated handling of goods.

Today also sees that intelligent facility automation systems easily integrate with a client’s existing systems or can operate as a standalone solution. Facility automation products readily available to the local market to consider as an element of facility automation come in a variety of solutions specific to each step in the chain, these may include:

Conveyor and carousel technology

  • Harvesting
  • Produce sorting
  • Packaging solutions
  • Automated vehicles
  • Processing and slaughter
  • Chilling and freezing line solutions
  • Pallet or carton handling
  • Storage and retrieval (various racking systems/mobiles/shuttles/moles/cranes/stackers)
  • Etc

Considering the levels of automation

Quite often, the concept of automation is mistaken because people think immediately about all of the television shows they have watched where robots are running around taking over society. This is obviously not accurate – a modern definition of automation is: the use or introduction of equipment of various types into a manufacturing environment, process plant or general facility with the intention of automatic operation, or, to support human tasks, while adding the ability to control outcomes more precisely, monitor systems, and generate data sets.

The automation process and options for any site can be customised to a level appropriate for each facility through many solutions that can be implemented from relatively simple, to as complex a system that can be conceived.

Basic automation systems use more planning with the addition of the appropriate machinery and equipment, as well as certain vehicles to reduce human involvement on repetitive tasks. Advanced systems, on the other hand, take advantage of several technologies and will include the use of robotics (not the ones seen on TV) and even artificial intelligence.

As an example, in a warehouse automation application, simple technology could be implemented that assists employees to lighten physical loads that would otherwise require more labour to be used. This may be as simple as the inclusion of a conveyor or carousel that can move products from point A to point B in a set path and with set parameters.

Combined order automation would rely on software, machine learning, robotics and data analytics to automate tasks and procedures. Here a warehouse management system could review all of the orders that need to be filled in a day and then has users pick like items to complete all the orders at once, avoiding crisscrossing the warehouse back and forth multiple times.

Mechanised warehouse automation uses technology, equipment and systems to assist workers with tasks and procedures. Autonomous shuttles could lift racks of products and deliver them to human pickers to retrieve and sort as another example.

Advanced automation combines systems and technologies that can entirely replace labour-intensive human workflows. Automated forklifts that can self-navigate a warehouse and communicate locations to an online tracking portal is an example, as well as an advanced autonomous sorting, quality control and packaging facility.

Automation technology types

Automation technologies are having a significant impact on facilities. Workflows and processes that can be streamlined through automation include several aspects to operate efficiently and scale correctly to changing demand. The higher the turnaround the greater the benefits in cutting down on human errors that extend into such actions as noting incorrect address or stock keeping units resulting in additional costs on returns or lost clients, and even on stock taking processes.

There are many types of products to consider, and as we have identified, automation aims to minimise manual tasks and speed up processes, from harvest to receiving and delivery. The technology falls into certain categories, and below are but a very few used in facilities around the world as an idea of what is available:

Harvesting: As one of the most advanced automation systems in the world currently, the use of robots and drones has seen significant support in numerous countries around the world. These technologies can more effectively work through orchards, sort on site, reduce damage to produce and also determine optimal picking times based on for example sugar content of the fruit, or specific set colouration. It also allows harvesting to be carried out at suitable hours, and with double shifts. This is particularly important when considering shelf life of perishables and the usual short windows of perfect harvesting times and subsequent speed to get the produce to cooling stages.

Mobile devices: Frontline workers depend on mobile devices to do their jobs more efficiently. These include smartphones and tablets, barcode scanners, and GPS technology. (Note a WMS that can support integration with these technologies is critical.)

Goods-to-person (GTP): Goods-to-person fulfilment is one of the most popular methods for increasing efficiency and reducing congestion at facilities. This category includes conveyors, carousels and vertical lift systems. When properly applied, GTP systems can double or triple the speed of picking and packing.

Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS): AS/RS are a form of GTP fulfilment technology that includes automated systems and equipment like material-carrying vehicles, tote shuttles and mini-loaders to store and retrieve materials or products. High-volume warehouse applications with space constraints tend to utilise AS/RS systems.

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Automatic guided vehicles (AGVs): This class of mechanised automation has minimal onboard computing power. These vehicles use magnetic strips, wires or sensors to navigate a fixed path through the warehouse. AGVs are generally limited to large, simple operations environments designed with an appropriate navigation layout. Complex warehouses with lots of human traffic and space constraints are said not to be good candidate sites for AGVs.

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs): More flexible than AGVs, AMRs use GPS systems to create effective routes through a specific warehouse. They use advanced laser guidance systems to detect obstacles, so AMRs can safely navigate dynamic environments with lots of human traffic. They are easy to program with routes and easy to implement quickly. AMRs can identify information on packages to assist with sorting and inventory checks.

Pick-to-light and put-to-light systems: These systems use mobile barcode scanning devices synced to digital light displays to direct warehouse pickers where to place or pick up selected items. They can dramatically reduce walking and searching time and human error in high-volume situations.

Voice picking and tasking: The use of voice-directed facility procedures, also known as pick-by-voice and voice directed systems, utilises speech recognition software and mobile headsets. The system creates optimised pick paths to direct warehouse workers where to pick or put away a product. This method eliminates the need for handheld devices like RF scanners, so pickers can concentrate on their task with improved safety and efficiency.

It also allows operators to carry out tasks and communicate without having to use paper or their hands. Workers can further use everyday language to send real-time updates to the system, including when orders are completed.

Automated sortation systems: Sortation is the process of identifying items on a conveyor-type system and diverting them to a warehouse location using RFID, barcode scanners and sensors. Companies use automated sortation systems in order fulfilment for receiving, picking, packing and shipping.

Sorting systems can also extract any sub-standard quality product at source to ensure only the unspoilt goods get past the initial stages before handling even starts.

AI and internet of things (IoT): Artificial intelligence and IoT are of the latest technologies to enter facility operations. They both come with a statement to be able to help businesses respond dynamically to rapidly changing conditions instead of having to follow pre-defined rules. IoT sensors provide the data and AI can analyse it and make advanced predictions that weren’t previously possible. The two technologies work hand-in-hand to help companies shift to a demand-driven model.

IoT data flows in from a myriad of locations, including from material handling equipment such as conveyors, smartphones and handheld devices, passive radio beacons, RFID, and more. AI systems take this data and transform it into usable insights, such as trends, predictive models, and other algorithms that can assist in making important decisions based on real-time conditions. These technologies can further be put to work to help manage routing and labour movement, batch orders, slot inventory dynamically, and much more.

Robots: Robots that operate in facilities rely on AI and machine learning to make decisions based on input from their surroundings. By using a combination of video, audial, thermal, and physical sensors, robots can measure ambient temperature and even perceive touch. Software and parameters direct their activities. There are a variety of robots used in manufacturing, distribution centres and warehouses today that can augment some workforce tasks and automate others fully.

Aerial drones: These units can be fitted with optical sensors and use deep learning technologies to scan items in high and dangerous places quickly and upload the latest counts to the system, provided that system can support their integration.

Augmented and virtual reality: Augmented reality (AR) technology involves using a camera to capture a real environment, such as an aisle in a warehouse, and then overlay instructions or information on that environment – on a mobile device. AR smart glasses, for example, allow operators to carry out tasks without using their hands. These apps can map out routes, show where bins are located, and more. Virtual reality (VR) technologies are also being used for everything from training lift truck operators to making delivery safer.

There are several advantages to using automation in any facility and above speed of operation, worker safety and morale can also be improved, despite negative views, as dangerous and mundane jobs are replaced with more strategic tasks. Mundane jobs become dangerous because repeat tasks can require significant hours of hard work and it is proven that concentration levels are difficult to maintain under such conditions which then leads to many break intervals, that in turn affects productivity.

What is a WMS?

WMS or a warehouse management system is something that you will hear about regularly when considering automation. It is a set of policies and processes intended to organise the work of a particular site – be this a manufacturing facility, warehouse or distribution centre that are the most commonly automated facilities in South Africa. The function of a WMS is to ensure that a facility can operate efficiently and meet all objectives.

A WMS (type of software) is widely used because it tracks all materials and goods as they come in and go out of a facility. In basic terms, a WMS helps optimise all the facility processes. It is extremely important not only because of tracking capability, it can also create systems to streamline how workers pick products and pack orders. It provides the ability to track merchandise entering, being packed onto shelves and into various places, and when it leaves the warehouse for order fulfilment. A WMS is based on the specific businesses rules and required process flows.

Since the warehouse management system has all of the information on hand, when a customer sends an order, it will immediately be able to check if the products are available. Instead of a person manually cross-referencing the order and the stock, the WMS can automatically mark the order as ready for packing or flag outstanding items or even be set up to suggest similar replacement products. This saves a great deal of time and effort and when used effectively “pay for themselves easily.”

A common query that comes up in automation is why use warehouse management systems? Well, the answer is quite simple in the environment today that we are in. As the digital landscape has evolved substantially, this means being equipped to fulfil any order quickly and efficiently to meet expectations. In order to do that, one needs a WMS to understand ‘where everything is’ to reduce any latency, processing costs and order errors that will affect profitability.

A WMS can in addition draw pictures from data inputs to identify trends and also assist to find new ways to optimise the way a facility is set up. You can also track raw materials when they come into a facility and make sure they are in the best place for processing or storage. WMS further enables the storing of fast-moving products to have priority close to loading areas with potential for the quickest turnarounds rather than making long ways across a facility.

Many facility systems also integrate with transportation management and logistics software that allows for a multitude of ways to expedite the fulfilment process – generating bills of lading, packing lists, and invoices for shipments automatically, for example, as well as sending out automatic shipment notifications.

With real-time tracking features then available, companies in the supply chain can keep tabs on whether packages or products arrive on time and to the correct destination, and, in an acceptable condition or range.

Another aspect you will hear about when looking at WMS are integrated versus standalone solutions. These are two types of WMS software one can use to stay on top of flow and operations.

An integrated WMS is normally an add-on from an existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) provider. ERP systems manage an entire business including invoicing, accounting and tracking inventory. The warehouse management system takes the orders and directs the order picking process, inventory, receiving and delivery of products. When all aspects are able to integrate into one system, it is much easier to keep track of which orders are best to invest money in.

Integrated systems also allow one to identify high turnaround products but low profit margins, as well as low volume movers with high profitability. So, for example in the cold chain, retailers would be able to identify that consumers prefer a 250g clamshell of berries or grapes rather than a 1kg carton box – thus being able to adjust their purchasing or marketing of other options.

A standalone WMS is then feature-rich software that primarily serves the function of warehouse management. Therefore, it might have limited functionality for other aspects of a business, such as inventory or accounting. Since it is tailored to specific functions, this type of WMS can have advanced reporting features.

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A further discussion on WMS will lead to the evaluation of on-premises or cloud-based solutions. An on-premises WMS is one in which each business is responsible for hosting and maintaining both the hardware and software associated with the system of choice. While this option gives complete control over things like uptime and security, it also comes with a large upfront cost because the business needs to provision all of the components as well as required maintenance.

Small businesses can generally work adequately using on-premises WMS.

Cloud-based solutions are typically charged on a subscription basis, but they are hosted on a remote server. Things like bug fixes and software updates are handled by the vendor, and you typically get a guaranteed level of service uptime when you sign up.

Customers have high expectations when it comes to shipping and even order packaging these days, so it’s important to eliminate confusion in any facility. Saving all the time and resources involved in on-premises systems can be a good way of doing just that.

Challenges of automation

Despite the benefits related to automation, it also has many challenges, particularly for the local environment. Automation at any level in the bigger picture is still in its infancy compared to other countries and South Africa is said to be “quite far behind” in adopting the full potential of automation technologies.

It also doesn’t help the case that automation requires significant capital investment to get up and running and expertise to establish and maintain the system, which many companies don’t have (and can’t afford in-house) and historically it could be difficult to find reliable skills which is a significant problem when equipment can of course break down, and that often happens at the worst of times, that leading to downtime and repair/maintenance costs above the potential loss of revenue and held raw materials or stock items.

This can of course be overcome through proper maintenance schedules planned well in advance and the use of reputable suppliers that have solid backup, service and spares.

The high upfront costs for equipment and setup typically pay for themselves over a much shorter time through efficiencies and increased sales, but businesses need to carefully anticipate and mitigate facility-specific challenges with proper ongoing risk assessment and planning.

As one can see, the new landscape and potential of automation in any level will no doubt in future be a major factor for businesses that want to remain competitive both locally and for the international markets. This article only covers a very small portion of the cold chain and our readers are encouraged to let the professionals answer any of your questions and offer guidance to solutions that are right for you.

Automation is the future as we see in many sectors already, and the best place to start a new journey is by taking the first step. South Africa, like many countries around the world have already, will undergo a shift in what is classed as best practice and operational efficiency exercises, so you have to ask yourself, what will the cost be of a late start to the race? Technology has advanced and you can take advantage of all the potential savings right away. Let the door be opened for you…

Article Sources:

  • Acrow
  • Barpro Storage
  • Forbes Business
  • Interlake Mecalux
  • Jungheinrich
  • Logistics Systems Engineering
  • Logmore Data Logging
  • Oracle
  • Research Gate
  • SAP
  • General industry engagement

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