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Robotic Picking Systems Enhance The Beverage Supply Chain

Track-and-trace systems and tighter inventory control helps beverage operations meet legislative, food safety and productivity demands.

This article originally ran in the March 2012 issue of Food Manufacturing.

Track-and-trace systems and tighter inventory control helps beverage operations meet legislative, food safety and productivity demands.

The U.S. FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) (P.L. 111-353) was signed into law in 2011 in response to a growing public concern about the integrity of both local and imported food supplies and the inability of officials to trace the sources of many tainted products. As those involved in the beverage supply chain begin to calculate the impact of FSMA, one requirement of the act is particularly striking:

  • “The Secretary [is required] to establish a product tracing system to track-and-trace food that is in the United States or offered for import into the United States.” (FSMA 204 ©)
  • Although FSMA focuses on products under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), its provisions reflect a larger push for traceability across the entire food and beverage supply chain. According to Dr. Don Ratliff, Regents and UPS Professor and Research Director at Georgia Tech’s Integrated Food Chain Center, any organization involved in the importation, manufacturing, production, storage, transportation and sale of food and beverages needs to understand the consequences, requirements and cost of compliance associated with FSMA. Automating material handling systems is one key way to meet track-and-trace demands in this sector while maintaining long-term profitability and efficiency.

Robotic order picking provides built-in track-and-trace capability

Unique product data is often lost in manual operations as pallets are broken apart and cases become indistinguishable from one another. If this information is lost at the case pick level, the ability to trace contaminated product back to its origins is lost.
Originally designed to meet the demands of high-throughput, high-SKU applications common in the beverage industry, robotic case and layer picking systems can also meet legislative requirements by capturing precise information on the location of all shipments down to the case level. Items are tracked throughout the entire process, and stored in secure and redundant databases.

Isolating suspect product at the case level

In the case of a product recall, robotic gantry systems make it easy to trace shipments forward and back without the investment required for additional barcode readers or RFID tracking equipment and software. Robotic controls integrate seamlessly with warehouse management systems, providing real-time reporting on task statuses from goods receiving, buffering and picking, replenishment, order consolidation, palletizing, loading, and dispatch.

Robotic order picking software can readily trace and isolate shipment data from at-risk production batches, providing vital case-level handling information including the SKU number, lot code, production line and location, and manufacturing date of contaminated products.

Robotic integration also offers long-term profitability and efficiency

While integrating robotic case and layer picking systems will make it easier for beverage suppliers to comply with traceability demands, the tighter control of inventory that comes with automation provides numerous additional benefits.

New robotic gantry systems allow warehouses and distribution centers to handle smaller individual order volumes, greater product variety per order and significantly higher throughput, more profitably and with a smaller footprint. Significantly reduced product damage and security concerns are another notable benefit for beverage distribution operations.

Finally, material handling automation also meets growing labor concerns in the distribution center as risks of lifting injuries, theft and high turnover rates are eliminated, and a more efficient use of manpower allows for reduced labor cost.

Supply chain visibility and better “sell” life

An additional benefit to supply chain visibility and attention paid to automating material handling is that products are moved more quickly and with less risk of spoiling and a greater focus on accountability. Supermarkets, retailers and suppliers can all benefit from increased “sell” life, better order management, tighter inventory control, fewer rejected loads and less waste because of better handling.
For a beverage warehouse or distribution facility, gantry robot systems with 100-percent order accuracy and data scanning and backup systems will meet any mandated track-and-trace requirements and increase visibility of the entire supply chain from farm to fork.

Derek Rickard has been with RMT Robotics since 1998. RMT Robotics, a Cimcorp Oy Company, is a material handling industry leader that provides automated robotic gantry systems in warehouse and distribution applications. Contact Derek at [email protected] or +905.643.9700, ext. 223.