Why Your MFC Needs Three Automated Temperature Zones

By John Hennessy

Over 20 years ago, John Lert, co-founder of Alert Innovation, had a vision of using automation to make supermarkets more profitable and the supermarket shopping experience more enjoyable for customers. Turning that vision into reality has been his life’s work.

If you understand supermarkets, you understand that realizing John’s vision involves solving a suite of complex problems.

One of the primary challenges that Alert Innovation needed to address was that grocery orders contain a mix of products from ambient, refrigerated, and frozen temperature zones. And, unlike a shirt or a book, even some ambient supermarket products are temperature sensitive and can suffer damage from extended exposure to heat or cold.

The problem to solve: how can a micro-fulfillment center (MFC) automation system fulfill orders while maintaining product quality, shelf life, and safety.

Temperature Control Matters

As mentioned, even shelf-stable items require temperature and humidity control to prevent product damage. Heat-activated detergent pods can release if temps get too high. Nutritional gummies can quickly become a singular blob above 90 degrees. And anything with chocolate can lose its shape and appearance at similar temperatures. So any automated order fulfillment system needs to keep both stored items and completed orders in a fully climate-controlled environment.

Refrigerated items without proper temperature control can lose days of shelf life, suffer from quality deterioration, and eventually spoil and become unsafe. The amount of time spent outside the proper temperature range is the culprit. The process of manually picking refrigerated items from a store floor, taking them somewhere for consolidation and staging, and then transporting to a shopper’s car or delivery van requires a lot of time and is full of opportunities for refrigerated product spoilage.

Isn’t it easier to pick frozen manually from the floor?

Frozen items are fairly sturdy, but they are still subject to deterioration in quality resulting from time spent at the wrong temperature such as a picker’s cart or while being stored or staged for pickup as part of a finished order.

A common misperception is that frozen items are easy to pick manually. But according to Dave Crellin, former Head of Online Operations at Sainsbury, “Picking frozen product from a shelf has a raft of additional complexity which makes frozen amongst the slowest of picking areas – the Alert Innovation solution circumvents many of these low-level inconveniences and standardizes the process to stimulate efficiency within this area and overall.”

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And frozen items are a growing segment of the online basket as evidenced by IRI’s research: In 2020, frozen food sales rose 21% in dollars and 13.3% in units, with nearly all categories seeing double-digit sales gains as consumers stocked up amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to AFFI’s and IRI’s latest report with FMI-The Food Industry Association, “The Power of Frozen 2021,” released in February. The top three frozen categories in terms of dollar sales growth were seafood (+35.3%), poultry (+34.7%), and appetizers (+28.9%).

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Grocery retailers need a temperature-controlled location not only for order picking but also for all the order fulfillment steps. Each phase of the order fulfillment process – picking, storage, consolidation, and dispense – leads to more touches, more labor costs, and more possibilities for product damage or errors.

 

Alphabot by Alert Innovation MFC
Alphabot by Alert Innovation MFC

Solution

The Alphabot system by Alert Innovation is the only automated fulfillment system that offers three temperature zones for tote storage in a single, integrated system. Ambient, refrigerated, and frozen inventory items along with finished orders are kept in their own temperature zones within the system at all times.

The process is straightforward. Products are first loaded into totes and then placed into storage in the appropriate temperature zone. The totes are then picked from the frozen, refrigerated, or ambient storage zones respectively, transported through picking workstations where ordered items are transferred into order totes, and then returned to their original temperature zone for storage. Completed order totes are also stored in the appropriate temperature zone pending dispense. When a customer or delivery driver shows up, multiple robots retrieve all the required order totes from the various temperature zones and dispensed to associates, drivers, or directly to customers.
28 items ordered. 28 items delivered.

There’s one other benefit gained by managing items from all temperature zones in one automated order picking and dispense system — order accuracy and complete order fulfillment. When orders are picked from the store floor, there is a risk of errors or out of stocks. Retailers never know exactly what will be available and what will be out of stock at the time the order is picked.
An automated order fulfillment system works like an SKU banking account. There is a precise count of the items (SKUs) put into the system, as well as which items have been ordered and in what quantity. Orders placed are tracked against inventory and there is total visibility to what’s been reserved but not yet picked and what’s been picked up, so the balance of each SKU left to sell is always available and accurate.

Is a shopper going to stay loyal if they place a 28-item order but only receive 25 items and two of the 25 items are substitutions? Keeping items from all temperature zones in the automated system delivers accurate e-Grocery orders.

Summary

For the highest product quality, freshness and safety, all e-commerce items should be stored in the proper temperature within an e-grocery automated fulfillment system. The benefits are many:
• Reduced time outside recommended temperature for product quality, freshness, and safety,
• Improved e-grocery order accuracy,
• Fewer touches and labor from order consolidation, resulting in a ~40% improvement in ROI, and
• Happy, repeat, e-Grocery shoppers.

For more information on the benefits of MFCs with complete temperature control, contact John Hennessy at john.hennessy@nullalertinnovation.com.