Lessons from the Front Lines: Automation Technologies that Have Proven Effective in E-grocery Micro-fulfillment Centers

Colman Roche 22 de febrero de 2021
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This is the first in a series of posts sharing the latest strategies and technologies grocers are using to automate e-grocery fulfillment.

The two most important strategic decisions grocers face when moving forward with plans to automate e-grocery fulfillment are choosing the right distribution strategy and the right automation technology. 

Regarding the distribution strategy, we have seen the hub-and-spoke, micro-fulfillment center (MFC) and hybrid architectures all be effective when supported by the right automation technology and software. However, in terms of technology, one automation system is proving well-suited to handle the unique requirements of e-grocery fulfillment, particularly in the smaller spaces typical in e-grocery fulfillment. 

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Swisslog offers a full range of automation technologies and has extensive experience working with our customers to match the right technology to a particular application. For most e-grocery applications we’ve found the AutoStore system provides the best combination of application flexibility, reliability, density and throughput to support e-grocery fulfillment. 

AutoStore uses a cube-based design that is ideal for small spaces with lower ceiling heights. Through this unique system design in which storage bins are stacked vertically up to six meters high, AutoStore achieves the highest space efficiency of any automation system available today. This is critically important considering the number of SKUs that must be managed in e-grocery fulfillment. 

The architecture of the system also allows a high degree of application flexibility. AutoStore can be constructed around pillars and in irregular shapes to take maximum advantage of available space. Designed exclusively for goods-to-person picking, AutoStore pick station locations are flexible and can be placed anywhere within the grid. They can also be customized with options such as scales that expand the products that can be included in the automation system. 

Another advantage of AutoStore in distributed MFCs is its low maintenance requirements and ability to withstand the failure of any robot. Each of the system’s multiple robots (the number is based on the storage capacity and desired throughput) can reach any bin in the system, allowing individual robots to be taken off-line for maintenance without shutting down the system or reducing performance. Fast-moving products naturally migrate to the top of the grid to enhance retrieval times. 

These features allow AutoStore to deliver consistent and reliable throughput in demanding e-grocery applications. While other technologies may list higher throughputs in their specifications, when actual throughput is measured on a weekly rather than hourly basis, AutoStore excels compared to the alternatives on the market. 

Finally, AutoStore offers a uniquely higher degree of scalability than other automation systems being used in MFCs. Unlike other automation systems, you can add storage, robots or pick stations at any time without ever shutting down the system or having to break down fencing and other safety systems. 

Software Determines Success

Robotic systems such as AutoStore have a certain “wow” factor that can sometimes overshadow the critical importance that software plays in the success of an e-grocery automation project. 

No e-grocery fulfillment operation will be 100% automated and it's the software that must synchronize automated and manual picking processes. A modular software platform, such as Swisslog’s SynQ, provides the flexibility to be deployed as a single platform that encompasses WMS and warehouse execution system capabilities or to integrate the platform’s warehouse execution system with the existing WMS. When operating as the WMS, SynQ provides single-system control and orchestration of all of the processes and systems within the fulfillment center. 
Another essential component of the software controlling MFCs is inventory and material flow management. Local inventory management should enable real-time inventory tracking and management of items by shelf life and “best-by” dates. The software should also enable complete order tracking, including automated and non-automated picking processes, and support easy integration of equipment such as weigh scales. 

Software also plays a role in enabling the automation system to deliver the desired productivity benefits. More mature e-grocery software, such as SynQ, allows orders to be pre-picked during non-peak times and then tracked, stored and retrieved close to pickup/delivery time. Well-designed software also enables easy and efficient exception handling. 

Finally, the design of the user interface can contribute to productivity. Interfaces should be designed to present necessary information simply, visually and intuitively to minimize training and maximize productivity. When interfaces are consistent across different processes, workers can move fluidly between automated and manual picking. 

Learning From Experience

Grocers who piloted automated e-grocery fulfillment in 2020 learned two key lessons. First, technologies that work well in large warehouses where their ability to use vertical space to enable density aren’t always effective in smaller spaces. The second is that software is just as important as hardware in the success of e-grocery fulfillment. For help in tailoring automation technology to your fulfillment strategy, contact Swisslog

In the next post in our series, we’ll share how grocers are determining which products to include in the automation system and which should be picked manually.
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