Food processing plants, warehouses, and distribution cen­ters see the value in robotics and automation and are ex­pected to invest $14.3 billion by 2025 in automation and tech­nology. Driving this spend is the need to address a shrinking labor force, accommodate safer working conditions in a post- COVID world, and a desire to decrease employees’ exposure to repetitive tasks and harsh environments.

“Management teams have seen an overall attendance in­crease when an effort is made to invest in equipment that helps employees with the daily work at hand, by giving em­ployees more control over the line performance, which in turn, increases output and performance,” says Mark Livesay, vice president, Automated Facilities for ESI Group USA.

Below we’ve highlighted automation systems that plant and warehouse management may consider to reduce risks, decrease picking errors, and increase safety.

Automated Storage & Retrieval SystemsAS/RS Manufacturers

Storage solutions on the floor can be improved without human intervention with the addition of automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS). Food manufacturers, proces­sors, and distributors are finding these systems critical for tracking a product’s status and improving turnaround times.

When choosing an AS/RS, first a building type needs to be determined: Conventional (up to 50 ft. tall) or Rack Support­ed (up to 150 ft. tall). There are three types of AS/RS systems:

  • One-to three-pallet deep system with multiple storage retrieval machine (SRM) aisles;
  • Deep-lane system (stores up to 12 pallets deep on either side of the aisle);
  • Pallet shuttle system serviced by elevators located in the end of aisle run-out area.

Facility managers also need to decide what type of order picking is desired:

  • Pick-to-belt or a pick to pallet/cart system: This involves the product being manually picked and the product transported to a palletizer.
  • Layer picking: A pallet is automatically brought down by the AS/RS and conveyed into a layer picking area where a gantry robot picks a layer off the pallet and builds a mixed pallet with different layers of product.
  • Case picking: Individual cases are stored in a mini-load AS/RS or a multi-shuttle (as seen in the photo) where individual cases are picked and conveyed to a palletizer.

There are approximately 13 major AS/RS equipment manufacturers in the US (see sidebar). The working en­vironment and type of project defines which AS/RS company is the best fit for an operation. ESI Group USA lays out the general project parameters, lets the AS/RS supplier propose its solution, and reviews the options with the customer, discussing the pros and cons of the system design and equip­ment. Choices are narrowed down based on customer input and the sup­plier’s experience with the application.

Automated Guided Vehicle Systems

Many warehouses have replaced traditional forklifts with automated guided vehicle systems (AGVS) to perform tasks previously performed by multiple employees, such as un­loading and loading trucks and trans­porting large items across ware­house floors. AGVS can also perform operations in harsh conditions.

For these reasons, AGVS use is be­coming more accepted. There are ba­sically two types of AGVS: the forklift type that stores and retrieves product on multiple levels and pallet movers where the product is either conveyed onto or off the AGVS, or the pallet is placed onto a cart and the pallet is towed to the desired location.

Robotics

In an effort to reduce time spent on redundant tasks or address work­force shortages, robotics and auto­mation are great options. Successful robotics implementation ensures that the workforce understands that the technology is working alongside them, not replacing them. As an ex­ample, autonomous scrubbers auto­matically clean and scrub floors, and are designed to work safely and effi­ciently alongside employees.

“There is no question that more food processing facilities and distri­bution centers are incorporating au­tomation to take advantage of all its benefits and still keep food safety at the forefront,” says Livesay.

Quick Facts

Food automation market to reach $29.4 billion by 2027.

60% of companies use technology to support workforce.

Tyson Foods invested $215 million in robotics and automation over 5 years.