The Japanese are known for their hard work and long hours on the job. That doesn't leave a lot of time for mundane tasks, such as shopping for the weekly groceries. And as people's lives grow increasingly busy, sales and home delivery of groceries is becoming one of the fastest-growing markets for e-commerce in the Land of the Rising Sun. That's where a home delivery service like the one offered by CO-OP Kobe makes life easier.
The Consumer Cooperative Kobe, or CO-OP Kobe, as it's popularly known, is part of a national co-op network in Japan, which itself is a member of a large international alliance of consumer cooperatives. CO-OP Kobe, located in the city of the same name in South Central Japan, focuses on retail stores and groceries. It operates 163 stores, most of which are comparable in size to convenience stores in the U.S. CO-OP Kobe also does a substantial business in home delivery of groceries and gifts.
CO-OP Kobe operates three logistics streams: store delivery, home delivery of food and consumer goods, and giftware. The giving of gifts is an important part of Japanese culture, and CO-OP handles gifts for both individual and corporate use through a separate distribution center and delivery service. Distribution of food, beverages, and clothing to CO-OP Kobe's stores is handled from two distribution centers. And finally, home delivery of food, beverages, and clothing is accomplished through three DCs, one in Western Kobe and two located in the Uozakihama district of the city. One of those is for dry (non-refrigerated) goods, while the other, known as the cold storage and fresh center, handles frozen foods, refrigerated products, and fresh produce. Goods from the two Uozakihama facilities eventually make their way to 25 "delivery centers," where they are split into truck routes for home delivery.
The Uozakihama cold storage distribution center, a highly automated 24,000-square-meter (258,000-square-foot) operation in a two-story building, was built in 2004, but it went through a major retrofit in 2014 with new technologies that have increased capacity and throughput, says CO-OP Section Manager Takashi Kusaka. Many of its former systems were replaced with innovative equipment provided by Daifuku Co. Ltd., including goods-to-person picking, pick-to-light systems, radio-frequency identification (RFID), and other automated systems to speed orders through the building. Some of these technologies are used in combinations that are not yet available to facilities in the United States.
The upgraded distribution center is one of the most advanced operations for home delivery in all of Japan. "We can now handle 43.6 billion yen of product here each year," reports Hiroki Tanaka, the facility manager. That translates to about US$385 million worth of products. Tanaka works for Mitsubishi Shokuhin, a third-party logistics company that specializes in food distribution. It manages the Kobe facility for CO-OP and is a logistics division of the giant Mitsubishi conglomerate.THE COLD FACTS
Working in arctic-like conditions is not enjoyable for anyone. That's why machines perform much of the work in the freezer area, where frozen goods are stored at minus 25 degrees Celsius (minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit). Similar automated systems store refrigerated goods at appropriate temperatures.
Suppliers deliver their products each morning to the 12 receiving docks. (An exception is fruits and vegetables, which are picked in the morning and arrive in the afternoon.) Almost all items will remain in the building for only a short time half a day or less, as most products will ship out later the same day. After receipt, the automated systems take over nearly all processes.
Palletized products are first conveyed to a six-aisle automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS). The system has four aisles for frozen goods with a capacity of 424 pallets. The two remaining aisles of the AS/RS handle refrigerated goods with 242 pallet storage positions.
Cases of products arriving from the pallet storage system and directly from the receiving docks replenish two automated miniload systems. The first, which handles frozen goods, comprises three aisles and can hold 2,400 cases. The second miniload system has 16 aisles with 9,984 storage locations to hold both refrigerated goods and fruits and vegetables in containers. It does double duty at CO-OP Kobe: from 4 a.m. until 3 p.m. it holds refrigerated goods, and then from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. it holds fresh goods, such as fruits, vegetables, and breads. Both miniloads feed goods-to-person processing stations where orders are filled. Cranes on the refrigerated miniload are also designed to handle two cases or cartons at a time for faster transfers.COOL TOOLS
CO-OP Kobe serves about 450,000 households in Hyogo prefecture and part of the Osaka area as well. Customers place their orders once a week; about 45 percent of the average customer order value consists of frozen items. Incoming orders for the day are assigned to pick stations. Picking for frozen items begins at 8: 30 a.m., and picking for refrigerated products takes place in a separate area beginning at 9 a.m.
To begin the process, cranes working in the aisles of the miniloads gather products within the systems. These are transferred to conveyors that transport them to the picking areas, which are located on the second floor of the building. Upon arrival there, the conveyor transfers the containers to storage and retrieval (S/R) machines that pass along the back side of the picking zones. The S/R machines automatically unload the containers into flow racks that feed the pick faces.
Both the frozen and refrigerated picking areas were completely renovated during the recent upgrade. Changes included the elimination of one of the frozen picking lines and one of the refrigerated picking lines. Even with fewer picking lines, the new systems are much more productive, according to CO-OP's managers.
The three frozen and six refrigerated lines are equipped with Daifuku's unique "eye-navi" pick-to-light system and another new Daifuku technology called Seven-9, which uses RFID to confirm picks and works together with the eye-navi system to increase picking accuracy.
Here's how they work, using the frozen picking lines as an example. A plastic bag to contain the frozen selections is placed inside each delivery container before picking commences. The container is then placed on a conveyor that feeds the picking lines, which are broken into zones. Across from the conveyor are flow racks containing the frozen products. Workers stand between the racks and the conveyors.
As each container enters the pick area, a put-to-light display unit moves on a track behind it so that the container and display are traveling in concert. The system reads RFID tags attached to each display unit as it enters a zone. This causes lights and quantity displays to illuminate at a flow-rack position to indicate which frozen product should be picked from that zone, and in what quantity. The worker gathers the prescribed number of items and turns around to look at the containers rolling through his or her zone.
Some of the displays riding along behind the delivery containers will then illuminate with a quantity indicator, which tells the worker which containers require that product, and how many items to put into each one. There are two lamps on the display. One lamp indicates to the worker that the container requires a product in his or her zone, while the other lamp indicates to workers a little further down the line whether a product will be placed in the container in their zone, which allows them to have those items ready before the container arrives.
Workers also wear a battery and RFID reader on the waist, and an antenna in a fingerless glove that wraps around the hand. As the order picker gathers the items, the antenna reads the RFID tag on the shelf to ensure the correct item was picked. When he or she reaches into the container to deposit the required items, the wrist antenna gathers data from the tag on the display unit to confirm that the item has been placed into the correct container. So essentially, the RFID tag replaces the need to hit a confirmation button, as is commonly done with light-based systems.
The light-directed system is an effective choice here. While temperatures in the pick zones are not as cold as in the freezer, workers still must don hats and gloves. Using lights eliminates fumbling to press keys or cross off items on paper lists. Plus, it is faster and more accurate, and the light displays perform well in the cool environment.
The containers continue to pass through all zones until they reach the end of the line, where the displays drive an order-confirmation process designed to verify that the total number of items placed into the container is correct. The light displays direct three people to perform this process by showing one of three colors: red, yellow, or blue. Each worker is assigned to count items only in the containers displaying his or her assigned color; this eliminates any potential confusion about which container to check and helps to keep the line moving at the required speed. The display also shows the total quantity of items that should be in that delivery container. The workers count the items in the assigned containers, and if the count matches the display, they then push the confirmation button and the shipping containers continue along on a conveyor.
The delivery containers from the frozen picking area then pass to a packing area, where workers remove the bag liners and the items they contain, and then transfer them to thermo boxes with foil exteriors. Once the boxes reach the delivery center, items inside will be removed and packed into Styrofoam containers for home delivery. Refrigerated and fresh products, which are packed in the foam delivery containers at the warehouse, are delivered to an automatic stacker that places them in two rows up to 10-high on wheeled pallets. The pallets are then rolled directly into trucks destined for the delivery centers.FAST AND FRESH
Fresh fruits and vegetables are also handled in the cold storage DC. Farmers pick fresh produce in the morning and ship it to the fresh produce processing area on the first floor, where it is washed, trimmed, and prepared by teams of workers. The fruits and vegetables sometimes in very small quantities, such as a handful of tangerines or one-half of a daikon radish are placed into plastic bags. These are put into plastic containers, which in turn are loaded into miniload storage containers. The goods then head to the refrigerated miniload, where they wait until they are picked for orders later that day.
All of the orders from the DC ship to the 25 delivery centers on either freezer or refrigerated trucks. The facility ships 220,000 containers daily from its 19 outbound docks; about 70,000 of those containers hold frozen goods. Once at the delivery centers, the containers will be sorted by delivery route and loaded onto delivery trucks. Customers receive deliveries once a week.
The new automated handling systems at CO-OP now provide fast fulfillment with a very high degree of accuracy. They also allow the cooperative to handle much greater capacity. "With our recent addition of the eye-navi and other systems, our productivity has increased and we are very happy with the results," says Mitsubishi Shokuhin's Tanaka. "This center has a much higher throughput than other centers," he adds.
As home delivery of groceries continues to grow in popularity in Japan, CO-OP will be ready to grow along with it. Even with the efficient new equipment, business volume is growing so fast that the distribution center plans to add one more picking line and expand the AS/RS this year.
Senior Editor Toby Gooley contributed to this report.