Italian food company Barilla is steeped in history, but company leaders are focused on the future when it comes to managing its material handling operations. The 144-year-old maker of pasta, sauces, breads, and more embarked on a supply chain transformation in 2012 that has produced a state-of-the-art distribution center in Parma, Italy, featuring integrated robotics systems and a 24/7 lights-out operation—a showcase of how automated material handling systems can improve operations and contribute to a more sustainable distribution and supply chain network.
“Barilla has always been committed to environmental and social sustainability. A sustainable food supply chain can be achieved only by looking at the entire supply chain in its overall dimension and [the] integration between the individual steps,” says Alessandro Spadini, plant director for Barilla’s headquarters and flagship production facility in Parma, which houses the DC. “An integrated factory, therefore, has a meaning that goes beyond the efficiency of the factory but is rather, a fundamental element [in making] the supply chain more sustainable.”
The 430,000-square-foot fully automated distribution center is equipped with more than 100 laser-guided vehicles and 41 robotic systems—including high-density automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), palletizers, labelers, and stretch wrappers—and handles 320,000 tons of pasta per year. Designed, manufactured, and installed by Italy-based automation solutions provider E80 Group, the facility’s flexible automated systems not only streamline throughput and allow for volume fluctuation through the plant but also are energy-efficient, contributing to Barilla’s overall environmental goals.
“The transformation of the Parma plant was a fundamental step on the path that we have undertaken, together with E80 Group, to develop flexible systems capable of significantly … improving how we work and distribute,” Spadini adds. “This important project is consistent with the commitment that our group has [made] to contribute significantly to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, along with the help of the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation, which studies food in its environmental, social, and economic dimensions. We keep working together to [deliver on our] claim: Good for you, good for the planet.”
Spadini says flexibility of design was the key to developing a DC that would address Barilla’s productivity and sustainability goals. A DC filled with rigid conveyor systems, for example, simply wouldn’t work.
“Any distribution system that is not sufficiently flexible, that is based on a rigid scheme, sooner or later, will become an issue,” according to Spadini. “The solution in trying to separate the various distribution processes—like high-density storage, transport of pallets, palletizing, stretch wrapping, and staging pallets at loading docks for shipping—comes from these processes ideally having flexible, adaptable solutions.”
With that in mind, E80 Group designed an integrated system that includes laser-guided vehicles (LGVs), robotic palletizers, and other end-of-line robotic systems that are adaptable and energy-efficient. The use of LGVs was an important part of the equation.
“One of the main reasons [for our decision] to move forward with this renovation of Parma’s distribution [center] was the desire to get away from conveyors and adopt laser-guided vehicles for pallet transport within the facility,” Spadini explains. “Traditional conveying systems are sized for production peaks and [are] not flexible enough to manage variations in throughput, in terms of both flow and volume. Therefore, pallet conveyor systems are typically highly inefficient.”
The Parma DC uses three main types of LGVs: those that carry a single pallet, those that carry two pallets at a time, and LGVs that carry four pallets at a time. The LGVs interact with floor-positioned pallets and AS/RS induction stations, picking up and dropping off pallets between the various stations throughout the facility: receiving, palletizing, stretch wrapping, labeling, finished-goods warehousing, and staging for shipping.
The LGVs are also a driving force for energy efficiency. The battery-powered vehicles use the latest in lithium-ion battery technology, according to both companies, and offer low toxicity and more consistent performance—the constant discharge voltage of the battery allows it to deliver virtually full power until it is discharged, for instance, reducing downtime and improving performance. The batteries also utilize wireless induction charging, with charging stations placed directly in the production area, which helps reduce vehicle travel in the facility, among other advantages. All told, the battery-powered vehicles have helped Barilla reduce energy consumption in the DC by more than 30% compared with a more traditional, conveyor-based system, Spadini says.
Barilla’s use of high-density storage within the facility helps with overall energy-reduction strategies as well. By storing more product within the DC, Barilla has eliminated about 3,000 truck trips per year to outside warehouses it previously used for storage, a strategy that has lowered carbon dioxide emissions and cut 40% of its lighting and 20% of its heating costs, Spadini says.
“These factors contribute to Barilla’s initiatives to reduce our carbon footprint,” he adds.
Barilla’s supply chain transformation is producing results: Since 2010, its Parma-based business (which includes manufacturing as well as the DC and is purportedly the largest pasta-producing plant in the world) has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 31% and cut its water consumption per ton of finished product by 23%. On top of that, it now purchases 64% of its electricity from renewable sources.
The facility’s “lights out” operation has been a prime contributor to those milestones. Receipt of products from manufacturing through staging of palletized units for shipping is completely automated. The facility’s high-density warehouse uses E80 Group’s AS/RS Store system, which uses stacker cranes equipped with automatic product-handling devices for double-deep storage. Six stacker cranes support 47,000 pallet locations, and there are an additional 50,000 pallet locations that allow drive-in LGV access. Palletizing is automated, as are stretch wrapping and labeling. Aside from loading and shipping, there is only a small team of employees who enter the facility for planned maintenance or unscheduled repairs, and the plant is supervised and controlled from a separate location.
“The DC was conceived as a lights-out facility [from] the very beginning,” says Spadini, emphasizing its contribution to the company’s larger effort to create a more sustainable supply chain.
Those goals are ongoing, as are improvements and upgrades in Parma that leaders at both Barilla and E80 say will continue to improve production and reduce energy consumption. Similar automation projects are planned for other Barilla facilities around the world as well.