Tech to boost efficiencies for food storage

By Alyson Magee

- Last updated on GMT

Automation and collaboration are key to helping operator prepare for Brexit
Automation and collaboration are key to helping operator prepare for Brexit
Technology is playing an increasingly significant role in the drive to handle and store food and drink more efficiently, while greater automation and collaboration are helping operators proactively prepare for Brexit.

Key points

The landscape of the food industry has changed quite significantly in the last few years, says Colin Taylor, chief executive of temperature-controlled specialist Rick Bestwick.

The drivers are rather simple, and effectively equate to greater efficiency,”​ he says. “Primarily, a consistent increase in the demand for longer retail shelf-life, higher quality standards and faster dispatch from time of order.”

Such prevailing market conditions have prompted food storage and handling providers, Rick Bestwick included, to seek out new processes and technologies in the pursuit of greater efficiency in the handling and storage of food and drink. And it’s a technical revolution that appears all the more necessary as Brexit approaches.

Food manufacturers and retailers are coming under increased pressure as their key input costs keep rising, warns Gareth Jenkins, senior manager at management and technology consultancy BearingPoint. “These include food raw materials, plant labour, points of sale, and for rentals in their outlets and stores,”​ he explains.

Further complexity and challenges to the supply chain are being caused by the increasing pressure on manufacturers and distributors to make products more widely available, according to DHL.

“As with many industries, the food and drinks industry is changing rapidly, with retailers and manufacturers having to constantly respond to new trends, such as e-commerce, and adapt the handling and storage of food and drinks to keep pace,”​ says a spokesman for the logistics firm.

‘Ever-evolving challenges’ (back to top)

“In order to meet these ever-evolving challenges, food manufacturers must adapt their transportation logistics to shorter, more flexible deliveries, and explore how they can optimise stock placement around their network.”

According to Taylor, these changing logistical needs exist within a climate that demands ever-greater quality, longer shelf-lives and more traceability. “These will be accelerated by automation technologies becoming more affordable and widely available,”​ he explains. “Additionally, with Brexit on the horizon, there will be an increased demand for export services and effective control of that process.”

Rick Bestwick offers its customers access to an advanced microwave up-tempering facility, which it says shaves days off the process. “Due to the nature of the meat and dairy sector, these customers are the most enthusiastic about the increased shelf-life and faster dispatch time, but we can provide those benefits to any manufacturer and almost any product,”​ says Taylor.

The company reports a steady increase in demand for blast freezing – the result of food manufacturers suffering from a lack of space to take the process in-house, or accommodate the extra storage or packing requirements.

Further developments aiding a reduction in handling and storage times include improvements in mobile technology used in haulage, collaboration and direct sales.

XPO Logistics expanded its use of Drive XPO mobile technology beyond the US to Europe this spring, integrating carrier operations with daily productivity tools. With the aid of Freight Optimizer data science, it helps to reduce empty miles, lower fuel waste, reduce road stress and make the customer service process more dynamic.

‘Just in time’ (back to top)

“By sharing transport systems, and converging drinks, food and consumable supply chains, retailers and manufacturers can increase availability and their ability to be ‘just in time’,”​ says the spokesman for DHL.

“It also allows them to be more efficient in reverse logistics, by sharing logistics services from the same outlets such as waste, recycling and empties. Shared logistics networks also help manage seasonal demand. At Christmas, for example, this allows retailers to benefit from size and scale not available within their own infrastructure.

“Providing e-commerce direct from the manufacturer is also gaining momentum in the marketplace and DHL is now working with a manufacturer on an online platform to sell direct to the consumer.”

Technology in the form of automation, meanwhile, continues to aid developments in storage and handling. To many, it’s a change that cannot be avoided.

The supply chain is facing a triple challenge of rising labour costs, the devaluation of sterling and European workers shunning a perceived ‘xenophobic’ Britain, says David Jahn, director of Brillopak.

“Over 55% of our fresh produce customers have flagged this as a concern, reporting their worries that migrant workers won’t return in 2018 to harvest and pack seasonal produce,”​ says Jahn.

‘Reliant on European labour’ (back to top)

And while automation has been deployed at the processing end of a packhouse for years, “the end-of-line placing of packs in crates and then palletising crates onto pallets is largely a manual process and very reliant on European labour”, ​he explains.

“Previously, packhouses were concerned about labour costs. But now, the crisis runs deeper, with farmers sectioning off fields and cutting back on harvests to plan for imminent workforce shortages. The impact on packhouses is just as real.”

Using its flexible robotic packing and palletising systems, packhouses can achieve greater profitability, efficiency and brand value, according to Jahn.

Payback can be achieved in between one and three years, he says, with the benefits of automation including greater flexibility to meet diverse packaging demands, improved overall equipment effectiveness, and enhanced traceability through integrated tracking, tracing and storing of data.

“Developments include the use of warehouse automation to reduce both labour costs and also the space required for storing products,”​ says BearingPoint’s Jenkins.

“When applied to the right part of the product range, this has allowed quick-service restaurant logistics providers to reduce cost, distribution centre size and energy costs.”

Taylor also identifies automation as key to offsetting labour shortages, and allowing operators to transfer staff into more productive roles.

How goods handling is getting greener

Complementing developments in technology and automation around goods handling and storage is a continued focus on environmental improvements across the supply chain.

“The factors driving increased innovation in automation and environmentally-improved solutions will increase even more in the future,”​ says Gareth Jenkins, senior manager at management and technology consultancy BearingPoint.

“McDonald’s, for instance, is recycling and reusing cooking fats as a biodiesel truck fuel, and using solar energy to provide electricity in its frozen/chilled warehouses. It has also moved over to using larger trucks with greater case capacity – where this is possible and where it fits the firm’s store estate profile.”

Further examples, he says, include the Havi Logistics distribution centre in Macau, which uses solar energy technology to reduce costs for frozen/chilled and other operational areas, and Martin Brower’s new Sydney facility, which has the highest possible Green Star environmental rating.

Earlier this year, logistics company Wincanton published a Guide to the Digitised Supply Chain, which covers themes such as blockchain’s potential to boost traceability and efficiency; artificial intelligence; warehouse automation; ‘the internet of trucks’ transmitting data to improve the accuracy of delivery and reduce waste; and robotics and the hybrid workforce, using technology to improve work safety and processes.

In March, Wincanton laid claim as the first UK third-party logistics firm to introduce production-level electric vehicles to its fleet, after securing five Daimler Trucks’ Fuso eCanter vehicles. The trucks will initially be trialled for inner-city logistics, and may be rolled out to its delivery fleet.

Also this year, supply chain specialist Fowler Welch invested £2m to develop its temperature-controlled depot in Spalding, Lincolnshire, with a focus on sustainability. The site uses the latest refrigeration technology, LED lighting and Quadcore wall panels to offer optimum thermal performance.

Handling border control fears

While a number of food and drink firms are said to be moving their headquarters to continental Europe ahead of Brexit, deep-frozen storage and logistics specialist NewCold recently announced plans to open a new UK site to pre-empt potential supply chain problems.

“It is possible for a food producer to store product in a warehouse close to the coast in Belgium or France and deliver directly into UK distribution centres within acceptable lead times,”​ said Jon Miles, country director at NewCold.

“But a recent study by Imperial College London has indicated that even an additional two-minute stop at customs checkpoints could lead to the final 40 miles of the journey to the Channel Tunnel taking five hours.

“The time and risk associated with these increased journey times will mean the obvious solution is to store products closer to the market in the UK.”

NewCold has already added 600,000m2 capacity to its site in Wakefield, West Yorkshire.

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