The Kroger Co. is no stranger to innovation. The Cincinnati-based grocery giant has made headlines over the past year for its investments in automated warehouse technology that streamlines and improves the fulfillment of online grocery orders. But Kroger is investing in its more traditional operations as well, implementing an automated warehouse system at its Mountain View Foods milk-processing plant in Denver that is helping the company deliver dairy products faster than ever before to stores throughout the region.
Kroger was careful to choose the right system to meet its needs, company leaders say. After researching best practices in manufacturing and warehouse automation in other countries, the retailer settled on an end-to-end system from material handling solutions provider Cimcorp that incorporates robotic technology to minimize labor, reduce time-to-market, and conserve energy. Up and running for about five years, the technology has delivered on all fronts. The 215,000-square-foot Mountain View Foods plant is able to function as an almost unstaffed, or "lights out," operation that is increasing the shelf life of the packaged milk, cream, and juice it provides to 160 Kroger stores—all while keeping safety and sustainability as top priorities.
EFFICIENT BY DESIGN
At the core of the Denver facility's operation is Cimcorp's MultiPick warehouse solution, a fully automated robotic production, storage, handling, and order-processing system that can hold up to 36,000 crates and pick 32,000 crates per day. The solution includes a warehouse management system (WMS), robotic gantries, software modules, and plastic belt conveyors that together coordinate the stacking, storing, picking, and movement of products throughout the site. Cases and stacks are picked according to Kroger's specified sequence on one end of the facility and palletized for loading onto delivery trucks at the other, leaving space for storage buffering in between. The solution also includes an inter-platform communication system, which integrates Cimcorp's WMS with all of Kroger's warehouse software systems to make sure everything works in concert.
Cimcorp and Kroger also point to the innovative look of the system. Instead of using a traditional in-floor-mounted "drag-chain"-style conveyor, MultiPick moves single and stacked plastic dairy cases on a series of knee-high plastic belt conveyors. Case stackers, manual in-feed stations, and inbound and outbound conveyor systems complete the solution, which is directed and monitored via Cimcorp's WMS. The WMS also controls order processing, gantry movements, stack transport, and storage facility data, while a programmable logic controller (PLC) manages the conveyors, stacking equipment, palletizer, and strapping system. In addition, Cimcorp's software uses a picking algorithm that selects cases for shipping on a first-in/first-out (FIFO) basis, by date code, to maximize product shelf life.
All in all, the solution "precisely controls the entire material flow of the facility," according to Cimcorp.
SAFE AND SUSTAINABLE
Cimcorp leaders say safety was a driving force behind Kroger's automation project in Denver. Minimizing human involvement reduces the chance of accidents and injuries, and the Mountain View Foods facility has had no recorded accidents since it opened in 2014, they note. The system's design helps keep things safe. In a traditional dairy, workers would have to use long-handled hooks to pull 250-pound stacks of dairy cases onto a chain conveyor—a process that presents a high risk of worker injury. According to Cimcorp, MultiPick's end-to-end automated system, with its nontraditional conveyor belt design, eliminates those challenges. It also allows the facility to run 24/7, increasing productivity. Today, orders are picked with 100% accuracy at faster speeds, which results in shorter leadtimes, fresher products, and maximized product shelf life, leaders at both companies report.
"Because of the level of automation, it takes far fewer people to run the Mountain View Foods facility than [it does to run] a traditional dairy," a Cimcorp spokesperson says. "Visitors often ask, 'Where are all the people?' The plant currently employs a staff of 115, with only about 30 people required per shift to cover all 215,000 square feet of the plant."
Sustainability is a key benefit as well, in line with Kroger's efforts to become a zero-waste company, an initiative it launched in 2017. The automated system at Mountain View Foods is helping to meet that goal in a number of ways. According to Cimcorp, robotic picking and palletizing can be performed as a nearly "lights out" operation because human involvement is only required to monitor system performance. As a result, Kroger has been able to reduce energy usage per unit by 3% each year.
The system is also helping to conserve water by limiting employee movement throughout the plant. Employees must follow a specific hygiene protocol to avoid product contamination when entering different parts of the plant. Less employee movement means less water used in that process. Together, Kroger's production plants, including Mountain View Foods, have reduced the company's yearly water use by 61 million gallons—the equivalent of the amount of water used annually by roughly 1,500 U.S. homes, the companies say.
Cimcorp leaders say the Denver plant's success has led Kroger to consider implementing similar technology elsewhere, although the companies have not announced any new or ongoing projects.
"Impressed with the results ... Kroger has had discussions with us at Cimcorp to retrofit automation into the distribution of other production facilities," the Cimcorp spokesperson says.