I, ROBOT

The robots are coming. The robots are coming.While it seems that the supermarket industry has been slow to incorporate robotics into its warehousing methods, there are signs that this cutting edge, seemingly futuristic technology is creeping into the distribution chain.Why?Well, for one, the ever-changing and expensive labor force is one area where distribution executives take aim when it comes time

The robots are coming. The robots are coming.

While it seems that the supermarket industry has been slow to incorporate robotics into its warehousing methods, there are signs that this cutting edge, seemingly futuristic technology is creeping into the distribution chain.

Why?

Well, for one, the ever-changing and expensive labor force is one area where distribution executives take aim when it comes time to cut costs in hard times.

Manufacturers and retailers alike are exploring the use of robots in various forms as labor pools tighten and ergonomic issues loom.

Pressures of speed and accuracy additionally compound warehouse managers' desire to seek alternatives to human involvement.

"The landscape will change significantly over the next decade," said Richard Kochesberger, principal, The Food Marketing Group, an educational resource group in Wallingford, Pa. "Companies will have to start substituting capital in place of people.

"Add on to that the difficult job of retaining employees and the lack of labor to begin with and the fact is that there is just not much choice," he said.

As a result, warehouse executives and distribution center managers are looking to robots.

From pallet-building machines, which visualize products through software programming, to sophisticated materials-handling robots, the technology is at hand to assist in the mission to reduce the reliance on the human element.

"Labor-cost makeup in a warehouse setting includes 60 to 65% for order picking, selecting cases and pieces, and replenishment," said Arthur St. Onge, president, St. Onge Co., an engineering firm based in York, Pa. "These functions are critical to order fulfillment and the cost factor can be attacked with automation."

Generally, the speed with which machines handle cases and the sheer cost of the equipment serve as a deterring factor to implementation, according to St. Onge.

But these walls may be tumbling down as the total supply chain moves toward case handling rather than pallet building, St. Onge added.

While manufacturers, with their single-quantity loads, are the best suited to take full advantage of robotic help, retailers have opportunities to put machines to work.

High-rise storage facilities operated by Ralphs, Compton, Calif., and Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., are moving pallets mechanically, according to industry insiders.

These automated retrieval systems use automated-guided vehicles with stacker cranes, rather than a traditional forklift and operator.

Other operators employ simplistic robotics to automate their distribution flow.

One of these systems involves a trailer with rollers in the floor and a bunker in front of the trailer. A wrench in front pushes pallets on the trailer off, generally moving a 22-pallet load within two minutes.

Traditional unloading methods would take one to one-and-one-half hours.

Drug chain CVS is one retailer that is relying on automated machines to palletize totes off the pick line. These pallets are then delivered to designated units. While this may be considered a limited application of robots, it is a money-saving application, according to industry observers.

"In Europe and Japan, distribution centers are forced to function with fewer people," Kochesberger said. "The cost of labor and the cost of land have forced the removal of labor costs to remain competitive. Now, American manufacturers and retailers are looking for ways to take people out of the equation."

A design being considered for C&S Wholesale's 2 million-square-foot York, Pa., facility, would call for part of the facility to function in some areas without people.

Another robotic system available takes vision.

This high-speed horizontal carousel with individual shelves holds cases of various sizes and weights. With 30-inch-high shelves, this machine operates like a small stacker crane. Storage systems for cases can be likewise automated, loading onto the carousel.

Software builds replenishment orders in mixed-pallet loads as cases are brought out in the correct sequence to build the pallet from the bottom. An articulating robot builds the pallet and has the ability to palletize more than one pallet at a time, but not particularly fast.

"There is a need to put capital into distribution centers rather than expense out labor," St. Onge said. "But there needs to be a proven payback. A proof that there is economical feasibility."

"The proven rate of return in other industry allows for a longer payout," said Paul Vanka, vice president, St. Onge Co., and a former Tops distribution executive.

"Those in the grocery industry don't like to be early adopters. There is an aversion to risk at the management level. That is changing with globalization and consolidation. Now, supermarket retailers are more willing to put money into experimental programs."

This is moving retailers and wholesalers to use mechanization.

Some chains are taking a hard look at cross-docking opportunities where shipments are taken from inbound to outbound truck without the product being touched or put into storage.

Other operators are creating orders through replenishment systems rather than pull systems. The technology is in place and automation is ready to go.

Midwestern mass merchant ShopKo is using cross docking at distribution centers for 80 percent of its items.