As food distributors know, when it comes to handling refrigerated and frozen foods, both accuracy and speed are of the essence.
So in support of speedy, accurate processing at the warehouse, retailers are availing themselves of a growing range of technology.
For example, the latest in warehouse management systems (WMS) provides real-time order information on what products and quantities will arrive at the distribution center, and when. Once products are ensconced in the DC, voice selection technology is enabling employees to confidently pick orders quickly and accurately.
In addition to the technology, distributors are expanding their refrigerated and frozen facilities in order to improve selecting efficiency as well as to provide more variety to stores. The trends in refrigerated and frozen warehousing have led to fresher products, more efficient operations, and better service to supermarkets.
As an improvement to its refrigerated warehouse, Associated Grocers, Baton Rouge, La., in the last few months has introduced bar-code scanning -- the Symbol technology suite in concert with OMI International -- to its receiving department.
"This system updates the WMS, and enables us to sell against our inventory since we have timely, accurate information," said Randy Fletcher, vice president, logistics. "Symbol has increased our ability to turn trucks by 15% to 20%, and we have reduced errors by 10 times."
Real-time information can be as critical as the accuracy of the orders themselves, said Fletcher. In the past, AG Baton Rouge corrected its lists for damaged or mis-shipped items when they were closed out. However, in the absence of updated information, a portion of those items began "butting up against" selling time, he noted.
Knowing exactly what is coming and when it is coming is information that P&O Cold Logistics, a cold logistics provider in Dominguez Hills, Calif., tries to provide retailers who receive products from the manufacturer warehouses it runs.
"We have recently been working with a retailer on providing EDI transactions through our TMS [transportation management system]," said Michael Black, regional sales manager, POCL. "These provide ASN [Advance Shipping Notice] information and tracking reports to the retailer, allowing the retailer to more accurately forecast their labor needs."
Refrigerated products, with their short shelf life, also require access to expiration or production dates, said Black. "Pulling orders by production codes or expiration codes is much more important to refrigerated product compared to frozen products," he explained. "Some manufacturers may even guarantee a specific shelf life for products upon delivery to retail stores, and these guaranteed shelf life dates can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer."
POCL provides WMS information on its Web site for its customers, which can include retailers as well as manufacturers, 24 hours a day. Indeed, more and more manufacturers and retailers are using the Internet to access inventory management reports and for other applications, said Black.
Voice selection software is also improving operational efficiency in refrigerated and frozen food warehouses. It can help overcome the limitations of bar coding for catch weight items such as meat, cheese, and produce, said Steve Gerrard, vice president of marketing for Voxware, Lawrenceville, N.J., a voice technology vendor of a system called VoiceLogistics. The system "can improve efficiency in the picking operation, which is where 45% of the labor dollars are spent," he said.
One VoiceLogistics user is Somerfield, Bristol, United Kingdom, which operates nearly 1,300 supermarkets and controls more than 7% of the U.K. grocery market. Somerfield began using the system as a freezer application in June 2003, said Roger Hughes, logistics executive for Somerfield. Prior to that, Somerfield used paper lists and labels for its picking operations.
''We were looking for improvements in productivity, accuracy of pick, and an easier and quicker learning curve," he said. "Most importantly in the freezer, we wanted to provide job satisfaction, hands-free picking, and health and safety improvements as a result of keeping eyes clearly focused on the job."
When Somerfield installed voice technology, it also added a roll cage system -- wire-enclosed pallets on wheels -- in which pickers would be instructed to place items in specific cages. Hughes said now employees identify exactly what is in each roll cage through a cage manifest, and transmit delivery details electronically to the stores over the Somerfield intranet. In turn, retailers are able to locate products more easily.
Hughes has noticed efficiency improvements at the three freezer depots using voice technology. Picking accuracy has improved from 99.2% to 99.8%., he said, adding that the learning curve for using the system has been reduced to hours rather than days.
AG Baton Rouge has been using voice selection technology, from Vocollect, Pittsburgh, for about 18 months. "We have reduced mis-pulls from four per thousand to one per thousand," said Fletcher, adding that this has enabled the wholesaler to reduce order audits.
Associated Wholesalers Inc., (AWI) Robesonia, Pa., also uses Vocollect in concert with the Triceps WMS (from OMI International) in all perishable departments, including frozens. "This year, AWI has committed a substantial amount of capital to implementing voice selection in meat, dairy and produce," said Bob Rippley, AWI's vice president of logistics.
These departments have achieved productivity gains of up to 10%, along with a 75% reduction in shorts and mis-selections and a 45% improvement in order accuracy since implementation of the voice system, Rippley noted. AWI has committed to begin using voice selection in the frozen food area in August.
POCL uses real-time information with its voice selection technology, said Black. For example, its voice-pick system in Henderson, Nev., enables facility managers to track orders as they are picked. "They could determine that order No. XYZ is currently 75% picked, and is expected to be finished in 15 minutes," he explained. "Then they can check to see whether the truck has arrived for immediate loading, or whether the order will need to be staged once picking is complete." This leads to informed, labor-saving decisions, and helps drive cost out of the system, he added.
In addition to using technology, AG Baton Rouge expanded its freezer operations by 35,000 square feet in April 2003. The wholesaler also extended the freezer dock to 50 feet, an addition of 20 feet, and added seven dock doors. The extra freezer space will help accommodate the growth in frozen entrees and related frozen items, said John Gillespie, vice president of operations.
Previously, about 80% of the freezer operations at AG Baton Rouge were kept at minus 20 degrees, with the rest at minus 10 degrees. With the expansion, 50% is at minus 10 degrees, typical for frozen food, and 50% is at minus 20 degrees, which is for raw bakery and dairy.
AWI has also enlarged its distribution facility, expanding the perishable warehouses by 33% in the past year with considerable emphasis on meat and produce storage. "This includes several additional produce vaults that we added in order to maintain exact storage standards for all types of produce -- to keep product at peak freshness," said Rippley.
AWI also installed a replacement "wet room" designed to maintain proper humidity levels for fresh leafy items. In addition, AWI plans to expand its dairy warehouse by 100% and the frozen food warehouse by 66% in the next two years.
Already, as a result of AWI's refrigerated frozen warehouse initiatives, Rippley said his company has improved the freshness, quality and appearance of produce being shipped. In addition, it has increased its variety in the meat and produce categories.
"Overall, since we made the technology and equipment changes to our refrigerated warehouses, we have improved productivity 10%," said Rippley. AWI has also decreased damage and energy costs, increased the number of stockkeeping units, and improved the quality of its produce since there is less shrink.
With the new warehouse space, AWI still wants to create more efficient selection patterns, reduce congestion and improve workflow, and reduce damage created by congestion, said Rippley. It also wants to increase overall throughput and productivity by 15%.
Even the best equipment and the most sophisticated technology won't keep warehouse employees warm in sub-zero temperatures. For that they need clothing geared to the particular needs of frozen warehouse operations.
One longtime company specializing in clothing for low-temperature work environments is RefrigiWear, Dahlonega, Ga. Its new line reflects the "increased need for agility and dexterity," said President Ron Breakstone. "People are working on more aggressive incentive programs."
Computerization has also put a premium on manual dexterity in the past five years, for activities such as peeling bar-code labels or operating a handheld terminal, said Breakstone. Thus, RefrigiWear has expanded its handwear products to allow full dexterity at minus 10 degrees.
With the move toward greater safety within the warehouse, RefrigiWear has also expanded its line of leather footwear to provide comfort at minus 30 degrees.