The Food & Beverage Industry Must Automate If It Wants to Stay Ahead of Consumer Demand and Challenges

Manufacturers and distributors who take steps now to automate will help prepare entire supply chains for future demand. Those who don’t risk missing customers’ expectations and financial targets.

A produce warehouse worker looks at a rugged tablet
by Paul Hilton
September 27, 2021

The food and beverage industry is one of the most unique and interesting to work in. It’s a space where history and brand consistency are sacred and often higher prioritized than transformation and reinvention. One of my favorite questions to ask when I visit food and beverage customers is the age of their facilities. I usually get back some count of decades, delivered with pride. There are few consumer goods providers that have a tighter connection with their customers than food and beverage companies. Entire cultures are defined by what they drink and eat. People find comfort in their favorite foods. And the lifelong bond we have with specific food and beverage brands simply cannot be broken. (Try telling a Texan that Strawberry Fanta is the same thing as Big Red, and you’ll see what I mean.)  It’s a connection so tight that companies tend to get strongly worded letters asking to return to their original recipes when the only change that was made was to the packaging. 

It’s a space where history, brand and consistency have proven time and time again to be keys to success. And, unfortunately, that has kept transformation and reinvention at bay, with producers resorting to (minor) changes only when necessary.

We are entering a new era for food and beverage though. One focused on providing consumers more details on what’s in each product and the process by which it was produced, packaged, distributed, and stored. It’s also an era that will be spent overcoming challenges such as tight margins and tightening labor markets.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.”

That has never been truer for the food and beverage industry. There are many technologies aiding workers through the current tough times, including mobile computers, barcode scanners, and even new heads-up displays that can support augmented reality applications. However, there is one set of technologies that will play a major role in the food and beverage industry’s next era of transformation: the one that enables automation of both mechanical processes and historically manual workflows across each part of the supply chain.  

I realize automation is not new in this space. Food and beverage manufacturers have automated production processes for a long time. But if they want to keep up with future demand and ahead of challenges, they must start to extend operational information beyond traditional silos and allow both supply chain partners and customers to peer into the inner workings of their businesses. So, we will see incremental advances made in production automation to start giving decision makers more data to work with when trying to speed up or slow down operations or improve planning and execution further downstream.

However, the real return will come with automation in the finished goods storage, movement, and staging processes, which makes it easier to pivot to last minute changes in production and distribution, even when labor resources are limited. Automation is the key to doing more with less.

How Automation Drives Progress

As with most technologies, automation solutions can come in many forms and be applied in many ways to steer operational improvements:

  • Semi automation will resemble existing operations closely, just introducing minor automation components such as product movers and stackers to help the workforce be more efficient.
  • On the flipside, full automation setups – sometimes referred to as dark warehouses – are seemingly self-sufficient. They are quite a sight to take in: an orchestra of elevators, conveyors and robotic arms working in tandem to move finished goods from the end of the production line to racks that rotate to the loading docks, all with minimal worker intervention.

Food and beverage manufacturers are ripe for full automation. They have minimal SKU counts to track and high inventory turnover rates. Plus, they usually rely on standard totes to carry products and storage footprints are minimal, so not as much infrastructure is needed to introduce automation. With many of the industry’s facilities approaching their final decades, full automation storage systems should be included when designing next generation facilities.

Now, food and beverage distributors are in a much different place. Though they often get lumped into the food and beverage industry category, they are essentially third-party logistic groups that tend to have higher SKU counts, dynamic SKU lists, and SKUs coming in various sizes than food and beverage producers. They also have larger warehouse/distribution center (DC) footprints and are more likely to move facilities as their markets and business needs change. Therefore, semi-automation solutions would be a better fit, as they’ll help workers immediately become more efficient in storage, picking and loading operations.

The Recipe for Success

Whether you’re a food and beverage manufacturer or distributor, automation is going to play a key role in the industry’s next era of transformation. Even if you’re not at the implementation stage just yet, look at your operations and evaluate what your next move will be.

Food and beverage manufacturers should keep adding automation to production lines as needed and focus on full automation for storage and staging operations. Semi-automation can be utilized in special cases, but I would only recommend using in a short-term, band-aid manner. Save the resources for working toward a full automation storage system.

Distributors, on the other hand, should focus first on semi-automation components that eliminate the remedial tasks workers are currently doing, such as moving finished goods. Give them bandwidth to focus more on rotation, staging and loading, where applicable. Keep an eye on full automation, though. Semi-automation may be the more realistic solution right now given how difficult it would be to implement full automation in current distribution settings. But the time will come for distributors to transition to dark warehouse-type environments too – once greater supply chain stability is achieved.

In Other Words

Figure out how you can incorporate automation now and later. It will be key to thriving in this new era in the food and beverage industry. Your current operations will be ready for tomorrow’s needs, ensuring your brand – your legacy – remains strong as your customer base grows and your product value increases.

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Editor’s Note:

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Paul Hilton
Paul Hilton is the Food & Beverage Lead, responsible for ensuring Zebra is aligned to the needs and challenges facing groups producing and distributing perishable goods. Paul has more than a decade of experience within the food and beverage industry, assisting groups with streamlining their manufacturing and supply chain operations.