For produce distributors, freshness matters! And freshness has a direct correlation with how fast they’re able to move products from one end of the distribution center to the other. From receiving, through storage, and out to dispatch, goods must flow at maximum speed to minimize distribution and transportation time, and ultimately maximize shelf life. It’s a constant race against the clock that can be taxing on operations and personnel—particularly if it’s a fully manual process.

The challenges these facilities face maintaining efficient product flow are only further magnified during seasonal peaks, and unexpected events—like most recently with COVID-19. We all witnessed the initial panic buying that left countless shelves empty at the grocery store. Many distribution centers had to work tirelessly with a minimal workforce to meet the unforeseen levels of demand and ensure a fresh and consistent supply of food would be available to consumers.

For those of you that need to re-evaluate your operations and think of new ways to win the race against time. Below are some innovative strategies to consider today:

1. Robots to the rescue!

There are many different ways to speed up the distribution process with automation, including automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RSs), goods-to-person solutions, robotic order picking systems and automated guided vehicles (AGVs).

Automation has the potential to make your distribution center six times more efficient than traditional, manual ones. Organizations can even find systems today able to perform product handling and picking operations simultaneously for added speed. A good idea is to look for modular systems, where facilities can flexibly scale up their levels of automation to maintain optimal fulfillment even as demand fluctuates.

2. Bigger isn’t always better

Have you seen the latest trend to use micro-fulfillment to provide faster delivery to the end consumer? Produce producers and distributors are considering adding micro-fulfillment automation right inside or attached to localized grocery centers essential creating a “mini warehouse” capable of storing and picking the most commonly ordered SKU’s by customers.

These smaller, strategically placed sites, improve intralogistics speed and significantly reduce last-mile delivery time. Beyond presenting time savings and inherent improvements in product freshness, micro-fulfillment centers also require less real estate footprint. The buildings and their internal infrastructure can therefore be set up for less and in a matter of months—rather than years—to meet growing business needs.

3. Look for outsourced help

Sometimes there’s a need to ramp up faster than expected and you don’t have the ability to do so utilizing your current facilities. In this situation you may need to look at outsourcing to a third-party logistics (3PL) provider that can manage the order fulfillment process on your behalf.

There has also been a trend towards 3PL providers adopting automation on your behalf in their own facilities in order to increase order fulfillment speed, meaning you reap the rewards of automation without having to make the investment yourself.  With an automated 3PL you ensure your customers receive orders faster and your product quality is ensured.

How Spanish grocer Mercadona stays up to speed

A great example of a company taking an innovative approach to distribution and order fulfillment speed is Spanish supermarket giant Mercadona. With product freshness being central to the company’s corporate philosophy, Mercadona chose to invest in automation to ensure products would flow quickly and seamlessly through its newly built distribution center in Guadix, Granada.

Author Derek Rickard

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