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Achieving High Availability When Automating Food and Beverage Storage and Distribution


James Sharples
November 1, 2023
Food & Beverage
In this post, you will learn about the food and beverage industry automation and its role in reducing labor dependence and improving operational efficiency.
Swisslog PowerStore solution at Linfox Bevchain facility
With demand growing, SKUs proliferating and labor availability continuing to be an issue, food and beverage manufacturers and distributors are increasingly turning to automation to reduce labor dependencies, adapt to changing market requirements and enable continued growth. 

Today’s automation systems are well equipped to support those objectives. Crane-based automated storage and retrieval systems, for example, enable space-constrained manufacturers and distributors to grow up rather than out, providing higher storage density within existing facilities. These systems also improve inventory management and increase process efficiency. Pallet shuttles can offer even higher density and throughput and are ideal for high-volume environments with fewer SKUs.

Automation is also enabling huge improvements in case handling and pallet building. Today’s mixed-case picking and palletizing solutions fully automate one of the most space-consuming and labor-intensive processes in the food and beverage value chain, while streamlining store replenishment. Receiving intelligently built pallets based on retail store layout has been shown to reduce the time and labor required to restock store shelves by 17%.

But as powerful as automation can be, it can also prove to be the Achilles heel of the food and beverage value chain if it can’t meet the demands of the environment. When automation systems go down, production and distribution can come to a halt and losses pile up quickly. At Swisslog, we recognize the critical role automation plays in operational continuity and have developed a multi-faceted approach to maintaining high availability of our automation solutions.

System Reliability

Solution availability starts with system reliability. Working within the industry for 50+ years, we understand the requirements of the food and beverage value chain and have developed a track record for delivering the reliability our customers expect.

Swisslog Vectura stacker crane for high bay warehouse reduces energy consumption
Swisslog Vectura Solution
Our Vectura cranes, for example, are proven in more than 2,000 warehouses worldwide with many in continuous operation for more than 20 years. These solutions have continued to evolve with lighter, more modular designs and features such as industry-leading use of regenerative energy without compromising their legendary reliability. That reliability is designed into every component from the bottom frame to the forks. 

With four types of bottom frames featuring different heights and thickness, frames are tailored to the application to ensure the strength and stability required. The crane chassis is also tailored to project requirements and heat-treated after welding to remove material stress. Our modular, tapered single or double mast designs streamline installation and our ultra-strong fork designs enable up to triple-deep reach. For multi-deep storage solutions, a reliable 8-wheel driven satellite is used. For freezer applications, we use specific components,  cables, and grade of steel to deliver reliable operation in this demanding environment.

All Vectura cranes leaving the Swisslog factory are tested and commissioned and enable easy serviceability. Crane controls are rear facing and accessible from floor level with emergency drive controls accessible without opening the cabinet.

Designing Holistically

The availability of an automation solution can be negatively affected when the various components of a solution don’t work together as one system. That’s why we take a holistic approach to solution development and design.

The foundation of that approach is minimizing single points of failure at the component and system level. We start with an understanding of our customers’ reliability goals and configure redundancy based on those goals, enabling process continuity if one part of a system is down for service. 

Our approach also ensures that all components within the solution communicate with each other to support fast recovery from minor issues, such as when a loose piece of shrink wrap stops system operation. To enable this, we’ve implemented a Single Point of Control feature in our solutions, which allows maintenance personnel to clear an error once and have that clearance communicated to all the systems that need to change. That gets automation up and running much faster than if errors have to be cleared separately for each component of the solution. This Single Point of Control also provides consistency, simplicity and ease of use across all displays and screens used by operators and managers, minimizing the risk of downtime related to operator error.
Finally, our modular SynQ software platform includes an Availability Manager module that provides insight into how each component of the solution works in isolation and collectively within the process workflow. By providing visibility into potential causes of downtime, managers can proactively address potential issues and plan service and maintenance with a higher degree of accuracy.  
Swisslog's SynQ software
Swisslog SynQ Software

Recovering Quickly

It’s no secret that multiple system integrators use Swisslog technologies in their solutions because of the performance and reliability those technologies deliver. But while those integrators may deliver the same technologies we do because they buy them from us, they can’t match our approach to lifecycle support. 

Warehouse automation systems are complex mechanical systems operating in demanding environments and the software that supports them is equally complex. Expecting every component to operate without ever needing service is obviously unrealistic.

Achieving the highest possible availability for these solutions requires a high level of specific expertise and skilled technical support specialists. It also requires an organizational culture that prioritizes lifecycle support and a commitment to making it easy to access that support. 

Swisslog has built a robust service offering that extends from resident engineers who specialize in equipping internal teams with the knowledge and skills they need to maintain our solutions, to a network of field service specialists strategically located globally to provide fast response to service issues that can’t be resolved by internal teams. Our 24 x 7 software support makes it easy for our customers to connect directly with specialists who understand their solution. 

We’re also working to use system data to enable proactive maintenance strategies that reduce planned and unplanned downtime, and our service specialists work with our customers to optimize automation performance and process efficiency as requirements change. 

It’s an approach to support that can make the difference between a solution that achieves your availability goals and one that doesn’t.

Automate with Confidence

When automation systems are engineered for reliability, designed with redundancy and ease of use, and supported throughout their life, they can deliver the availability food and beverage manufacturers need to increase storage capacity, reduce labor dependencies and adapt to changing requirements. At Swisslog, we offer a range of food and beverage-ready automation solutions backed by our deep industry expertise and unmatched lifecycle support. To learn more about our approach to automating processes across the food and beverage supply chain, contact us.
About the author
James Sharples
VP Global Business Acceleration at Swisslog
More about James Sharples
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