Integrating Man and Machine: A Fresh Approach for Modern Grocery Warehouses

Integrating Man and Machine: A Fresh Approach for Modern Grocery Warehouses

As one of the most repeatable, well-understood, and mature supply chains across all industries, the grocery supply chain has mastered predictable processes around every conceivable aspect of warehouse operations as grocers operate around unusually razor-thin profit margins. Not surprisingly, grocery DCs have increasingly embraced automation to help reduce labor-intensive manual work and increase overall efficiency so that fresh goods get delivered to shelves as fast as possible.

Shoppers are increasingly getting more selective about fresh food. In 2017, fresh food accounted for 30.5 percent of food purchases—with major increases in produce, bakery, and deli meat sales.[1] This consumer demand places even more pressure on grocery DCs to deliver fresh food fast, transparently, and with the highest quality. And when grocery DCs also accommodate and experiment with ecommerce, the supply chain must literally run like a machine—with very little margin for error.

Evolution in Efficient Grocery DC Automation

To run like a well-oiled machine, you need machines, so it’s no surprise that grocery DCs have recently increased their investments in automation to assist with food quality control, compliance, and specialized needs such as facilitates product flow through temperature-controlled environments. However, grocery DCs can face limitations when multiple types of automation are used and mixed together. Sortation equipment, ASRS, conveyors, and robotics can conflict with each other—and with warehouse employees.

The result? Wasted technology investments, inefficient use of labor, and increased time to market for your fresh goods. Inefficient use of automation also hurts grocery DCs as they are challenged more than ever to ship a broader array of products to fulfill customer demands across in-store and online grocery orders.

For example, let’s say a grocery DC has invested in automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) that leverage industrial robotics to ensure high efficiency, low touch put away and retrieval of food items. The ASRS automates the task of bringing pallets, cases, or totes of items from storage into a forward manned station—all while keeping the temperature consistent. Automated depalletization robots can be incorporated to break down those pallets into smaller units of measure for an employee to pick by hand. How are these machines optimized to work together in such a scenario? And how do these machines efficiently coordinate with workers?

Or, how does a grocery DC balance an automated, static layout of ambient grocery items with abrupt shifts in demand for certain holiday items (such as instant stuffing or canned cranberries for Thanksgiving)? Accommodating this need may require creative, real-time human decision making, new temporary dynamic locations, that can clash with a static, automated layout.

What these scenarios outlined above highlight is the need for order fulfillment systems to integrate with automation sub-systems to help determine the next best move that holistically maximizes asset utilization and throughput in the warehouse. When you include ecommerce, the need for such integrated systems becomes even more important as grocers must continuously evaluate order priority to ensure streamlined fulfilment processes that meet or exceed consumer expectations and SLAs around fresh items and individual orders.

Order Streaming Allows Grocery DCs to Meet Ecommerce Demands

Leveraging the strengths of batch efficiency, wave picking is often used with traditional grocery store replenishment with pallets and cases shipped to stores. However, inefficiencies arise when orders need last-minute adjustments or labor is wasted between waves. Waveless picking works well with ecommerce order prioritization by focusing on single, time-sensitive orders that often need same-day order fulfillment. The sophistication required can challenge traditional grocery DCs, especially with fresh and perishable items.

By leveraging wave and waveless approaches simultaneously with order streaming, a grocery DC can efficiently handle store replenishment and direct to consumer orders in a single platform. To ensure orders are fulfilled as efficiently as possible, an embedded Warehouse Execution System (WES) within the WMS gives the grocery DC real-time awareness about the capacity of both man and machines to perform work at a given time across wave and waveless order fulfillment. This allows the grocery DC to blend time-tested traditional supply chain processes with modern ecommerce fulfillment processes—both of which effectively integrate man and machine to focus on getting the highest quality fresh goods to consumers as fast as possible.


So while automation helps improve speed, and reduce variable labor costs, you lose valuable efficiencies with a system that lacks a seamless link across your automation tools that connects all order processing workflow steps. For grocery DCs to compete, accommodate customers, and keep costs down, such a system is essential for surviving the intense competition and consumer demands for fresher food that will only continue to grow.


[1]Food transparency drives growth in fresh departments.” New Hope Network. Deanna Pogorelc. May 11, 2018

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