From coffee beans to circular conveyors and cold chains - Food in motion

Heusenstamm, 22 October 2019 – Anyone strolling through a central European city at the beginning of the 19th century will notice all manner of businesses: carpenters, shoemakers, tanners or clothiers offering their services on the street. For the upper classes, there are shopping centres selling clothes. Yet unlike today, there is one business that simply cannot be found: supermarkets. The supply of food has completely changed since this time. The city markets sell almost exclusively local products, and there are no global networks to facilitate the transfer of food products across countries or even continents for the general public. 

Industrialisation is fundamentally changing living conditions. There is a move from an agricultural society to an industrial society. In the increasingly densely populated cities, entire families work in industry and there is little time or space left over for the production of their own food. At the same time, European colonialism is growing in popularity: Great nations like Britain, France and Germany are trying to divide the world amongst themselves. Production for the domestic industry and the domestic market reaches unprecedented levels. Trade with the overseas regions brings new food to sell to the general public. As a result, the range of special foods and beverages and the customer base are expanding. Business people start to see an opportunity to make a profit with retail chains for the new market. In the USA, Safeway, one of the largest supermarket chains still existing in the world, was founded in 1915. Following the end of World War I in 1919, Tesco becomes the next global player to be launched in Great Britain. Due to the higher number of customers, it is no longer possible to prepare all the food for sale in the shop. In order to optimise these processes, the first conveyor belts are introduced to the food sector. In the mid-1920s, for example, workers at the company Latscha in Frankfurt are sitting on a wooden conveyor belt made by the company Stöhr, a predecessor of Dematic, and are bagging almonds, which will later be sold to the end consumer in the retail store.

Shopping at the first grocery stores is still a fairly leisurely process. The customer hands over a shopping list at the counter, then the goods are put together by the sales assistants and handed back to the customer. In 1937 an invention fundamentally changed the shopping experience. Sylvan Goldman uses shopping carts for the first time in his Humpty Dumpty store in Oklahoma City. Pre-packaged foods can now be selected from the shelves by the customers themselves.

The grocery store with its service counter is transformed into a supermarket offering self-service and an individual shopping experience. Payment for the self-assembled items takes place at tills in front of the exit. Goldman‘s primary aim is to encourage customers to make larger purchases but, first and foremost, the new method saves considerable personnel costs and speeds up the purchasing process.

In Germany, the Second World War initially delays the introduction of the new idea. The first shopping carts are only available in Germany from 1948 onwards. However, the currency reform and the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany stimulate the economy, and soon the new shopping experience in the self-service supermarkets is also starting to take off in Germany.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Stöhr circular conveyor has been used in warehouses and industry. Whereas previously the circular conveyor was primarily used to transport textiles, components or hardware, it now becomes a means of transport for the food industry. Soon beverage crates or even banana plants are whizzing through the warehouses of food wholesalers. Not only does this look pretty spectacular, it is also extremely useful. As a result, the 30 to 50-kilogram perennials are exposed to fewer points of contact and arrive at dispatch much more quickly. In turn, this improves the quality so that the bananas are fresher when they arrive at the end user.

Stöhr's overhead conveyor technology not only improves the transport of "solid" foodstuffs, it is also used in the beverage industry where the internal transport of crates, boxes or unpacked bottles is a huge challenge: Cans can become misshapen, bottles can break and barrels require an enormous effort to move due to their weight. The overhead conveyor system from Stöhr enables accident-free and uninterrupted transport of differently packaged beverages. As a result, the number of damaged goods is much smaller compared to manual handling.

While conveyor systems from Stöhr are taking German food warehouses by storm, the next development is already taking place in the USA. From 1954, the first automated guided vehicle systems (AGVs) are launched. Although these systems are still quite primitive - simply following a coloured strip laid in the floor initially and then wire later on - and are not yet used in the food industry, the foundation has been laid. Nowadays, AGVs have become virtually indispensable in intralogistics.

Thanks to innovative and more precise logistics solutions able to handle smaller volumes, individual customer orders are becoming ever more feasible and delivery times are shortened. At the same time, the Internet is becoming part of everyday life for more and more people, the result being that the market for e-food grows rapidly in a very short time. In 2007, the aforementioned Amazon Fresh is therefore able to take advantage of an already profitable market.

Despite the acceleration of many processes, the food traders still face enormous challenges when it comes to logistics and intralogistics. Consumers expect very fast delivery times for food — preferably on the day of ordering. Dry, fresh and chilled goods must all be stored and transported according to different regulations and the cold chain must not be interrupted during transport. In view of these complex requirements, it is hardly surprising that the suppliers take over the complete delivery processes themselves and deliver the products to the end customer.

However, transporting the various foods in manual warehouses is only possible with a large number of additional human resources. This is where Dematic comes in with its Automated Mixed Case Palletising Solution (AMCAP). Incoming pallets are first recorded electronically and then transported to the high-bay warehouse. From here, the pallets are transferred to an automatic layer depalletiser. Robotic gripper arms carry out the depalletising task, even for goods of different sizes and scales. The items are then stored using the multishuttle system. Once an item is ordered, it will be picked up by the multishuttle and transported to the RapidPall palletising cell. Here, the item is placed on pallets along with other ordered items and prepared for shipping.

The opportunities in intralogistics are now reversing the trend in the e-food sector, resulting in further changes to purchasing behaviour and the shopping experience. In a sense, we have returned to the traditional corner shop principle and the service counter. Although the order form at the counter has become an online shopping basket, and the sales assistants have been replaced by state-of-the-art logistics facilities. Nevertheless, the principle of individual order and service is on the rise again — with the added option of delivery to your home within just a few hours. This relies on an intralogistics solution that functions even faster and more accurately, tackling conflicts between the supply chain and the retail sector and remaining profitable despite low margins. The solution is micro-fulfilment centres. Dematic is currently installing such a micro-fulfilment solution at the US retailer Meijer Inc., which operates around 250 supermarkets and almost as many filling stations. Fully automated, highly compact and tightly packed warehouses in urban areas that autonomously assemble online orders and minimise the cost of the last mile by reducing the distance to the customer. The supermarket, as we know it today, could eventually become a thing of the past.


About Dematic

Dematic is a leading supplier of integrated automated technology, software and services to optimize the supply chain. Dematic employs over 7,000 skilled logistics professionals to serve its customers globally, with engineering centers and manufacturing facilities located around the world. Dematic is one brand under the KION Group of companies and has implemented more than 6,000 integrated systems for a customer base that includes small, medium and large companies doing business in a variety of market sectors.

Headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, Dematic is a member of KION Group, a global leader in industrial trucks, related services and supply chain solutions. Across more than 100 countries worldwide, the KION Group designs, builds and supports logistics solutions that optimize material and information flow within factories, warehouses and distribution centers. The company is the largest manufacturer of industrial trucks in Europe, the second-largest producer of forklifts globally and a leading provider of warehouse automation.

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Jessica Heinz
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