ShopHero enables independent grocers to create e-commerce sites that reflect their store operations.
As noted above, automation as applied to fulfillment and distribution centers has become a big topic, given the gargantuan efforts of Kroger especially. One size doesn’t fit all, however.
“People jumped into automation, [but] now they’re taking a breath and asking, ‘What do I really need?’” says David Lind, director of business development for Lewiston, Maine-based Modula.
Warehouse automation can take on various approaches, from the comprehensive to the incremental, and generate all kinds of costs. Modula provides a sense of how technology can enhance warehouse operations without the need for comprehensive, expensive and potentially disruptive reconstitution of an existing system.
Modula vertical-lift modules (VLMs) can enhance and complement existing systems with automated modules designed for efficiency, according to Lind. As the name hints, the company offers a modular system that it can install as needed in an operation. The company’s modules promote efficiency in several ways. First, they store products vertically on trays loaded in a series of bays accessed by an automated elevator system. The modules use the whole vertical availability in the warehouses, up to 40 feet, whereas traditional racking reaches only a proportion of the available space. Modula also designed its system to maximize vertical space within each compartment, which is usually not the case with conventional racking. Picking product stored within is a matter of scanning a barcode, and the system even uses lights to ensure that the correct product as scanned is picked by the warehouse employee.
Although it’s possible to use it for main warehousing, the Modula VLM can supplement specific purposes. So, if a retailer wants to do fulfillment from a facility, pickers can continually gather orders and store them in the VLM until it’s time to present them to a customer in a store or curbside. In another use, retailers that are expanding their product selections can store slow-moving items in spare space near the entrance using a Modula VLM, rather than racking them in the back of the warehouse and having to send a forklift searching out those kinds of items, wasting time in search and retrieval.
Customers can select from different systems depending on their needs, the largest being 16 feet wide, Lind notes. Companies can maintain a single module or add over time. VLMs include a chilled option and can also accommodate chilled modules that mount within the VLM so that mixed storage is possible. Frozen options are in the future.
Lind concedes that the automation provided by Modula may not save the operational time of a fully robotized warehouse, but the solution can be several times faster than traditional practices, for a fraction of the cost of a full-site conversion. “The message we want to get across is that Modula doesn’t necessarily see this as the solution of storage needs, but more as a complement to what’s already out there,” he says.
Consider the Source
In effect, one of the things that’s happening in technology now is that companies are looking at what challenges exist in the market and trying to develop more specific and often simpler methods to address them, which often means doing so at more reasonable cost.
Take traceability, for example. The ability to trace product back to the source has been critical for the produce industry as a way of quickly identifying the source of a foodborne illness, both to ensure that an outbreak is minimized and to prevent a general panic from emerging that might hurt trust between the produce sector and its customers. As consumers become more concerned about issues beyond foodborne illness, however, and want answers about how products are sourced, manufactured and shipped through the supply chain, more businesses have to consider how to provide traceability, and that can be costly.
Randy Fields, chairman and CEO of Murray, Utah-based ReposiTrak, is among those who have worked on the challenge, and after developing purpose-built software, he’s come up with a low-cost solution
Traceability has benefits beyond the health-related. The generally accepted proportion of food that never makes it from farm to plate is in the vicinity of 40%, according to Fields, and consumers are becoming more aware of the problem. Traceability can identify problems in the supply chain that cause waste, and it can allow retailers to address and communicate how they’re dealing with not only waste, but also environmental issues in sourcing everything from food to furniture.
Yet cost as a problem in today’s supply chain is global. The food part is particularly tough because of the enormous number of providers from the ground up. Product shipments have an identifying code, but systems such as barcoding are time-consuming and require a great deal of labor, as each lot has to be read at each stage of shipment and consolidation.
Fields developed his traceability solution by, in effect, expanding out from an existing payment system that he operates. In the course of doing business, ReposiTrak records the shipping code from billing documents. In that way, the company can inexpensively establish the route of any shipment and be able to trace product back to its origin.
“We have an interesting advantage,” he says. “We already have a network around the world of suppliers and retailers for compliance management and inventory to go from. We have 2,500 produce companies in the network. In effect, we’re already connected, so you already have sent us a document.”
Ultimately, ReposiTrak can use the systems it has in operation to help retailers, wholesalers and suppliers work together to ensure product safety and shelf availability, as well as to reassure shoppers about the safety and sustainability of products.