November/December 2020

New strategies to improve, maintain produce distribution
By Derek Rickard

For produce processors and distributors, product freshness has a direct correlation with how fast they’re able to move products from end to end across the distribution center. From receiving, through storage, and out to dispatch, goods must flow at optimum 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 in facilities reliant on manual order picking processes. 

In these manual distribution centers, order fulfillment speed becomes highly dependent on the physical endurance of employees. Any challenges these facilities may face maintaining efficient product flow are only further magnified during seasonal peaks, when order numbers surge and order picking staff must work harder and longer hours to keep up with the demand. 

Even then, processors and distributors can typically predict and plan ahead for seasonality. Unexpected events — like COVID-19 — are a different story and can take a heavier toll. We all witnessed the initial panic buying that left countless empty grocery store shelves. 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 who have struggled with manual order picking processes and distribution center efficiency — whether during or prior to the pandemic — it may be time to re-evaluate your operations and think of new ways to win the race against time. Below are some innovative strategies you may wish to consider today. 

Introduce micro-fulfillment centers

Instead of relying on traditional, megalithic distribution centers, produce producers and distributors can consider adding micro-fulfillment automation right inside or attached to localized grocery centers. Micro-fulfillment automation is like a “mini warehouse” capable of storing and picking the most commonly ordered SKUs by customers. 

In setting up these smaller, strategically placed sites, organizations can 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.

Get by with a little help from robots

An ideal way to bolster order fulfillment speed is through automation. There are numerous automated solutions available now that can move products through a facility with high speed and precision, including automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RSs), goods-to-person solutions, robotic order picking systems and automated guided vehicles (AGVs).

Since these automated systems can perform order fulfillment far faster than humanly possible, automated distribution centers are often 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.

For those wondering what happens to the workforce in a once-manual warehouse, it’s important to note that automation doesn’t eliminate the need for existing employees. Rather, it offers them the opportunity to shift from physically demanding roles to safer, more tech-oriented positions where they’re responsible for overseeing the robotic systems. Notably, automation can also make it easier to protect these employees and support ongoing social distancing measures, as the systems can keep products moving out the door while managers limit the number of staff per shift. 

Outsource to a 3PL provider

For produce processors who feel that the need for speed is outpacing their facilities’ capabilities, outsourcing to a third-party logistics (3PL) provider — either partially or entirely — can provide much-needed support. A 3PL provider can bring in an organization’s product inventory and manage the order fulfillment process on its behalf. 

Similar to micro-fulfillment centers, outsourcing shortens last-mile delivery time as these 3PL providers often have established fulfillment centers located across multiple geographic regions, putting products closer to stores and consumers. There has also been a trend toward 3PL providers adopting automation in their own facilities to increase order fulfillment speed, meaning processors can enjoy all the benefits of automation without having to make the investment themselves.

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. 

Namely, the distribution center was designed to handle around 6,000 SKUs with zones for different products: one for dry produce, two for refrigerated products, one for frozen products, and a production area for bread. Installed robots provide buffer storage and order picking in one simultaneous operation. These robots are responsible for handling full crates of fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat in the refrigerated zones, where there are around 300 different SKUs in 30,000 crates. A warehouse control system manages the automation and overall product flow, in addition to providing Mercadona complete product tracking and traceability.

Fully integrated with its surrounding manual operations, the automated solution allows Mercadona to meet the very short lead times required by its business. In fact, the system is able to handle and prepare orders for the company’s over 1,600 supermarket stores in just six hours, ultimately ensuring customers enjoy the freshest selection of products. 

Time is ticking in the race against not only time, but also the competition. Those who take proactive measures to accelerate order picking and fulfillment — through micro-fulfillment centers, automation, 3PL providers, or a combination of these strategies — will stand out in today’s highly competitive food and beverage marketplace. Driven by innovation, the improvements in distribution operations can help you get ahead with a reputation for speed, product freshness and customer satisfaction.

— Rickard is the director of sales at Cimcorp Automation Ltd, a logistics solutions provider. For more information, visit

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