Why IFCO reusable plastic containers are optimal for warehouse automation

2018-12-03

IFCO

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Sturdy, stackable, and standardized containers work best with automated systems. And IFCO RPCs offer these advantages. As retailers turn to automation to meet supply chain demands and make their logistics more efficient, they can rely on IFCO to help them.

Not one tab, not one latch, not one air hole in an IFCO reusable plastic container (RPC) is intended as decoration. Each feature serves a technical necessity, and the containers’ aesthetics arise from functionality. When selecting IFCO RPCs for automated systems, teams of IFCO engineers work closely with retailers as well as equipment manufacturers, to make sure that the containers are truly fit for purpose. “Every corner, every eyelet of an RPC is there for a reason,” explains IFCO CEO Wolfgang Orgeldinger. “It can be stability, to keep the container securely in the stack, or might be there to make it compatible with another product. It might be a feature that allows the RPC to move optimally on a conveyor, or to provide better ventilation during refrigeration.”

Large European retailers might have a fruit and vegetable assortment that includes some 300 products. So it is critical to select the IFCO RPC that is right for each product, while making sure that each container is compatible with the automated equipment – as well as with any other existing packaging that will be handled by the robotic systems in a logistics center. With more than 70 types of IFCO RPCs, experts can test a range of containers, for example, to find out which bottom deck configuration travels most smoothly over any rollers.

And visa versa – when designing warehouse automation, the equipment engineers can adapt the systems to the containers they plan to transport, such as by adjusting the spacing of rollers, or by determining that the containers travel along the conveyors in a specific direction. Adapting systems to established products inevitably saves costs, both in development and long term. Orgeldinger says, “Automated high-bay shelves and automatic order picking systems in logistics centers work best with standardized containers, such as IFCO RPCs.” Even the smallest deviation of a few millimeters in container size can create a huge disadvantage for automated logistics centers that might be handling more than a million containers every month. 

Reducing strain in the supply chain

The trend towards warehouse automation in grocery retailing is set to increase in the coming years. Many of the largest retailers in European countries including Switzerland, France, and Finland, with their highly regulated and cost-intensive labor markets, rely at least in part on automation – and other players in the market are considering it. By installing such systems, retailers ease the physically strenuous work of lifting, layer picking, and stacking containers. Labor laws may allow only a certain amount of weight to be lifted during the course of a shift. Or regulations may limit the weight of a single manually lifted load to 15 kilograms, for example. Yet standard sales units for certain products, such as oranges from Spain, commonly weigh about 20 kilograms, plus the container. While this is appropriate for employees’ health, it leaves retailers few alternatives than to partially or fully automate their logistics. “Warehouse automation offers a solution to the changing demands of the produce supply chain,” says Orgeldinger.

The fascinating precision of automation

When growers already pack the fruits and vegetables in IFCO reusable plastic containers, it reduces handling during the entire supply chain, and greatly facilitates automated processes in the logistics center. What goes on inside an automated warehouse? Palettes containing produce and groceries arrive at a logistics center from near and far – stacked high with IFCO RPCs. The palettes then enter the infeed, where the automated system reads the bar codes. It records that each sales unit – a crate of apples, for example – belongs to a certain delivery. It also identifies each incoming IFCO RPC by its measurements.

Once inside the logistics center, groceries are usually stored in refrigerated, or cooled warehouses, and rarely at a temperature that is comfortable for workers who might be there for hours at a time. Moisture and humidity are also necessary for fresh produce, but unpleasant for people. Reducing human exposure to these undesirable working conditions is another reason to introduce automation. Such cold and damp conditions may also be too extreme for single-use packaging. It can absorb moisture and lose its shape, or its dimensions might change slightly. Because an automated system continues to scan the container at various points during handling and storage, it no longer recognizes a single-use box that was identified earlier. Orgeldinger explains that IFCO RPCs maintain their shape, because they are made of stable and moisture-resistant polypropylene.

As goods move through the warehouse, robots and conveyors sort the sales units. Here, the configuration on the bottom of the IFCO reusable plastic containers ensures smooth passage over rollers or conveyors. Once sales units are separated, each IFCO RPC travels on its own plastic tray to a specific place to high-bay shelves in the tray warehouse. In this way, sales units are identified both by the date they enter into the system, as well as where they are stored in the shelves. Commissioning orders and transporting individual sales units in IFCO RPCs to the outfeed becomes fast, cost-efficient and precise. A high percentage of IFCO RPCs also mean less packaging waste. However, challenges still exist. 

The next generation

After the standard container dimensions have been established, these must remain consistent to ensure that automated systems continue to operate smoothly. Even the slightest change in color, form, or material between product generations may make it necessary to calibrate the machines again. Setting up an automated system with a new container is costly. “It takes a long time to develop new containers, not only because of the optimization of the product itself, but also because they need to be compatible with previous applications,” says Orgeldinger.

This high level of product compatibility and standardization in IFCO RPCs is illustrated by our nearly 1.5 billion grocery shipments around the world in more than 50 countries. When developing solutions to supply chain demands, automation companies, supply chain experts, and retailers trust IFCO, the global leader for RPC packaging, for its ongoing technical, customer support. As retailers look to meet the tomorrow’s challenges, warehouse automation to varying degrees will be inevitable. And IFCO reusable plastic containers can help accelerate the uptake of automation.