The fascination of handling fresh produce with warehouse automation

03.07.2018

IFCO

Share on social media

Both fast and precise, warehouse automation solves a range of supply chain constraints. And IFCO reusable plastic containers are optimally suited to automated systems, because they protect fruits and vegetables even under extreme conditions.

Mikko Kymäläinen has just 24 hours to distribute the baby potatoes to stores in Finland. Otherwise, exposure to air thickens the nearly translucent skin of the first-batch harvest. Then, no longer so tender, these vegetables even lose their specialty category, and can only be sold as “young” potatoes. Only utmost speed, along with precise handling, can prevent this. As the logistics manager of SOK/ Inex Oy automated warehouse, Kymäläinen is in a unique position to deliver the Finnish traditional vegetable delicacy, called varhaisperuna, just in time, safely cradled in IFCO reusable plastic containers (RPCs).

Found in Europe’s far north, the SOK Group, Finland’s largest retailer, is leading the trend toward warehouse automation. Since mid-2017, its fully owned partner company, Inex Oy, has operated a fully automated warehouse for fresh foods. Located in Sipoo, Finland, this logistics center distributes almost 50 percent of all of the groceries sold in the country. Nearly one million IFCO reusable plastic containers carry fresh fruits and vegetables through this warehouse every month. In some of the RPCs, contents include the delicate Finnish tubers just getting their first breath of air.

Retailers run the daily race of getting fruits and vegetables to consumers quickly, with the least amount of product damage and waste. Warehouse operators must also deal with supply chain factors, including increasing labor costs. At the same time, they are required to reduce workers’ risks of musculoskeletal strains, by limiting the weight of boxes, for example. Some retailers are turning to warehouse automation as a solution. “Warehouse automation is synonymous with precision, speed and efficiency,” explains IFCO CEO Wolfgang Orgeldinger. “And IFCO RPCs are optimally suited to the specific needs of warehouse automation.”

Field-fresh potatoes, just six to eight weeks old, arrive already packed in IFCO RPCs at the facility by truck. As with all arriving goods, warehouse workers peer into containers. They might manually handle product samples, squeeze for firmness or inspect for bruises and moldy spots. Following the quality inspection, barcodes on the IFCO RPCs are automatically read into system, which notes the type of crate and its contents. The next station awaits.

Container characteristics

With warehouse automation, containers snake through a complex arrangement of conveyors at one meter per second. To function efficiently, such automated systems require standardized, absolutely stable and stackable crates. The large range of IFCO reusable plastic containers, which accommodate the requirements of various produce types, nonetheless all have the same footprint. This characteristic, along with their sturdy construction, guarantees secure stacking. “The customer wanted to avoid tilting in particular,” explains IFCO-CEO Wolfgang Orgeldinger. “It was clear to them that IFCO RPCs offered the best solution.”

A baby potato skin has a thickening reaction to air, yet all fruit and vegetables breathe and sweat. Inside a warehouse, humidity can reach 80 percent. “Shape and stability of the crates are critical in an automated system,” says Mikko Kymäläinen. “If packaging absorbs moisture and gets soft, it becomes impossible to handle via automation.” Yet moisture does not affect the shape or strength of IFCO reusable plastic containers, which are resistant to water and provide excellent ventilation. This is also important when cooling fruits and vegetables – every product has its own optimal temperature, and too high or low can cause irreversible reactions. Chill damage can kill the cell structure of potatoes, for example. During storage, the last thing retailers need are boxes that collapse or give way, crushing the goods or causing them to drop from high-bay shelves. Durable and sturdy polypropylene IFCO RPCs protect their easily damaged cargo, and they have an interlocking design for stable stacking.

Handling and order picking

Along with stability, the containers used in automated systems must display other characteristics. Among these, they must fit the constraints of conveyors and other moving parts onsite, to ensure trouble-free operation. Because automated warehouses are designed around the processes, the requirements of the equipment can determine other essential features of the packaging. “Our customer received a range of IFCO RPCs to test the automated systems,” explains Wolfgang Orgeldinger. “They chose a specific model because it best suited the conveyors they wanted to install.”

The next step inside the warehouse involves moving the containers to the next area, where layer pickers precisely allocate shipments. This can be the trickiest step in produce handling. In a multi-packaging environment, boxes and containers often vary in size and shape, which presents big challenges for automatic layer pickers. Inex Oy logistics manager Mikko Kymäläinen emphasizes, “We scan containers during the entire process. If the shape or dimensions change through moisture or pressure during any step, the system perceives it as a different container.”

This is why standardization is critical. Using IFCO RPCs, with their standard footprint, layer picking – separating containers layer by layer into customer orders – is fast, accurate and precise. At the same time, the machine’s movements are carefully executed to avoid jostling delicate fruit or damaging their sensitive skins. To continue the gentle ride, the IFCO RPCs travel on trays to the palletizing zone, where they are placed on pallets or roll cages. Each stack is then wrapped snugly in plastic foil to hold all containers in place. Then orders are moved to the outfeed for loading onto trucks. The potatoes will soon be back on the road.

Partners in warehouse automation

Using warehouse automation, operations are in Sipoo running smoothly, using IFCO reusable plastic containers for about 70 percent of fresh produce, as well as for bread. Some 21,000 different articles – stock keeping units (SKUs) – shuttle through the warehouse automation system. “We are aiming to ship most of our fruit and vegetables products with IFCO RPCs. Our goal is 15-16 million IRCO RPCs per year by mid-2019.” Mikko Kymäläinen is confident that he has made the right choice.

Yet there are challenges to warehouse automation, primarily cost and investment risk. “We are perhaps the Lone Ranger in the industry,” says logistics manager Kymäläinen, smiling. However, he advises logistics managers in other European countries to follow his company’s lead and consider automated systems. “You’d be surprised at how many products you can handle by automation.”

Now IFCO reusable plastic containers move through the warehouse automation in Sipoo, perfectly synchronized, much like the cooperation between IFCO and its partners. “We work extensively with clients so they have no surprises,” says IFCO CEO Wolfgang Orgeldinger. “It is important to be involved at an early stage.” This contributed to the successful launch and smooth operation of the warehouse. Mikko Kymäläinen praises the cooperation with the global RPC market leader for its competent customer service, flexibility and sustainability along the entire chain: “IFCO is always there for us.”

And with speedy distribution using SOK/Inex Oy warehouse automation, people in Finland can enjoy the freshest produce – including first-batch, pale yellow baby potatoes that IFCO RPCs have carried from field to retailers in less than one day. Growers, logistics managers, retailers, and other supply chain specialists all trust IFCO to handle their valuable products with the greatest of care.


Watch IFCO RPCs in action at SOK/Inex Oy logistics center in Sipoo, Finland: