Automation ensures optimal freshness, minimal handling time of fresh produce

Robotic automation solutions enable supermarket giant to optimize the picking of fresh produce.

A family-run chain of supermarkets, Mercadona is a market leader in Spain’s grocery retail sector. Founded in 1977, the group has more than 1,600 stores across Spain and employs some 76,000 staff to serve 5 million Spanish households. For its new DC in Guadix, Granada, the company invested in robotic automation for the handling of its fresh produce, which has minimized handling times to maximize product freshness and shelf life.

The new DC was designed to handle 6,000 stock keeping units (SKUs) and shift more than 3.5 million cubic feet of merchandise per month. The facility features zones for various product types: one for dry produce; two for refrigerated products at temperatures of 3ºC and 12ºC; one for frozen products at -23ºC; and a production area for bread. The new robotic storage system (Cimcorp) automates the picking of full crates of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat in the refrigerated zones, where around 300 different SKUs are handled in some 30,000 crates each day. In addition to the robotic system, the system supplier provided crate stackers, the conveyor system and a warehouse control system (WCS) to manage the material flows.

The robotic solution features eight robots that operate on overhead gantries to combine buffer storage and order picking functions into one operation. The robots handle perishable goods in plastic crates in the refrigerated zones.

Although fully integrated with the surrounding manual operations, the system is effectively an island of automation that prepares orders for retail stores, enabling them to be transported to the supermarkets without the need for any further processing. With product pallets going in and store pallets coming out, the island is self-sufficient, taking care of goods reception; put-away; location of stored items; retrieval planning; picking of crates; sorting and assembly of crates into discrete orders; and loading of the orders onto transport units ready for delivery.

The robots store up to 30,000 crates per day and up to 28,675 crates are picked in a six-hour period to replenish the supermarkets. The 300 refrigerated SKUs are handled in one of two sizes of plastic crate that can weigh 10 to 550 pounds, with a maximum stack height of 7.2 feet.

After going live in just eight months, the fast order processing resulted in enhanced freshness and longer shelf life. The automation allows Mercadona to have all store orders ready for delivery to the supermarkets in six hours. The company was so pleased with the solution that it ordered a further system for another of its sites.

The robotic system ensures accurate order picking and enables Mercadona to set its own picking criteria and implement them consistently. This might include, for example, the placement of heavy products at the bottom of crate stacks, or taking into account expiry date or production batch.

Full tracking and tracing is possible, with all movements of goods being communicated to the host system without the need for bar codes or RFID tags. Greater flexibility is provided through the high level of redundancy of the robotic solution; this allows Mercadona to adapt its operations to meet daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal fluctuations.

About the Author

Josh Bond

Josh Bond was Senior Editor for Modern through July 2020, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.

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