Does robotics point the way forward for food retailers?

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In today’s food industry, consumer expectations are at an all-time high. Online shopping habits are fuelling the expansion of distribution centres (DCs). They are also creating opportunities to develop new business models.

In my opinion, a shift from linear value chains to value networks is a viable response. However, one of the challenges facing the industry over the next decade will be having access to a skilled and dedicated workforce.

Labour market dynamics

I recently read a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, assessing the impact of automation on the workplace. It suggested that “labour market dynamics” was a big influence on the pace of automation. This relates mainly to the “supply, demand and costs of human labour as an alternative to automation”.

McKinsey detects that “the technical automation potential of the global economy is significant”. The report also mentioned that “automation is needed to boost global productivity and raise GDP”. For me, that is a hard claim to ignore.

Finding alternatives

Ultimately, I believe we’re going to witness the automation of all DC processes. Automation already makes it possible to increase operational efficiencies. It also improves ergonomics, reduces picking errors and shortens lead times.

We will certainly see a decline in the volume of people willing to drive trucks – a key part of supply chain management. This means being proactive and exploring advanced technology, such as autonomous trucks.

Finding alternatives to the dwindling workforce is going to set unique challenges for our customers. At Vanderlande, we’ve long been developing automated solutions.

Collaborative robotics

For many, robotics may hold the key to overcoming these challenges. A paradigm shift is expected as rising labour costs – coupled with a shrinking workforce – take hold. This will drive the need for food retailers and supermarkets to start robotising the process steps in their supply networks.

We already have proven technology to help retailers bridge this gap. It is possible to robotise a significant portion of the supply chain with our automated case picking (ACP) solution. This works by automatically (de)palletising groups of products.

Gradual integration

I see a future in which the baton is passed to robotic technology gradually. In the next five years, it is easy to imagine that the volume of people per workplace will decrease in tandem with the scarcity of labour.

As less young people show a desire to work in warehouses, the need for automation gathers momentum. For this reason, the industry must start developing solutions. Vanderlande is being proactive in defining a response – in this case, robotics.

In time, robots will advance and take on more work, enabling human operators to support multiple robots. One of the main drivers will remain the availability of people and the requirement to fulfil day-to-day deliveries.

As technology continues to improve, we can fine-tune our approach to robotics engineering. One of the advantages to food retailers of investing in robots is their adaptability. As algorithms improve, it is predicted that they will ‘learn’ more and increase their capabilities.

Exciting opportunities

The application of robotics is going to be a central topic over the next few years, and we can expect to see:

  • a dwindling workforce in warehouses
  • an increased demand for automation
  • the rise of collaborative robotics
  • further integration of robots.

I think that food retailers should see this as an exciting opportunity. As an integrator, we’re further analysing the areas in which robots can be of value. It’s my hope that retailers will want to take the next step with us.


Remko van Gils

Market Director Food Retail

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