Fully Automated Warehouse for Fresh Produce Relies on IFCO RPCs

Finnish retailer SOK looks to reusable containers from IFCO to help optimize its automated fulfillment system for fresh fruit and vegetables

IFCO RPCs at automated warehouse SOK

Standardization, dimensional consistency, rugged construction and resistance to moisture add up to a winning solution for SOK’s automated warehouse for fruit and vegetables.

Pullach, June 7, 2018 – A unique logistics center run by SOK near Helsinki is one of the first food retail logistics centers in the world to fully automate fruit and vegetables. The center relies on reusable containers from IFCO, the leading supplier of reusable packaging solutions for fresh products. In the fully automated system, IFCO reusable containers can fully exploit their strengths.

Bringing fresh fruits and vegetables from grower to vendor is a race against time. Often, only hours elapse between receipt of products in the distribution center and shipping to the customer. In order to be able to deliver quickly, reliably and cost-effectively, Finland’s largest retailer SOK opened a fully automated fresh food store near Helsinki in mid-2017. Half of all food sold in the country is handled there. SOK uses reusable plastic containers (RPCs) from IFCO because they perfectly meet the requirements of automated systems.

The capacity of the logistics center exceeds 1.2 million units per day and handling around 21,000 different items. More than a million RPCs from IFCO transport 70% of all fruit, food and bread products through the warehouse each month. From mid-2019, Inex Oy, the logistics subsidiary of SOK, intends to ship most of the fruit and vegetable range with RPCs, equivalent to a volume of 15 to 16 million IFCO reusable containers per year.

Strengths of reusable containers: moisture-resistant, stackable, stable

“It was particularly important to the customer to avoid tilting the boxes,” explains IFCO CEO Wolfgang Orgeldinger. “That’s why he wanted to work with a high percentage of plastic crates right from the start.” Inside the automated warehouse, a complex system of conveyor belts, elevators and sheet grippers sorts products and distributes them efficiently to consignments. This requires standardized, absolutely stable and stackable boxes to securely stack different products. IFCO guarantees minimum dimensional tolerances and a robust construction – even under extreme conditions.

In the warehouse, the humidity can be up to 80 percent – which does not change the properties of IFCO’s RPCs. They are moisture resistant and still well ventilated. “The shape and stability of the boxes are crucial in automated systems,” says Mikko Kymäläinen, Logistics Manager at Inex Oy – a key argument for his company to use IFCO reusable containers. “When crates absorb moisture and soften, they can no longer be handled in automated processes.”

One touch packaging

When SOK went out of storage a decade ago, it was decided to automate workflows in the distribution centers as capacity expands. In this way, retailers can not only lower their labor costs. The employees are also better protected against work accidents. Because in the automated warehouse, people and products come into contact only at the first quality control. As the RPCs move through the system, scanners read barcodes indicating the nature of the box and its contents. Conveyor belts and elevators transport the fresh products to pallets or baskets. From there, the selected sales units are brought to the outlet and – assembled individually – loaded onto trucks.

Space-saving and hygienic – 60,000 boxes a day for washing

The Helsinki facility also benefits from the additional benefits offered by IFCO reusable containers: the amount of waste is reduced by 85 percent compared with disposable containers. Empty and folded, the RPCs are very flat. This saves space in the warehouse and on the transport pallets. With a minimum number of vehicles, around 60,000 empty RPCs per day can be transported from the warehouse to the IFCO service center. There, the load carriers are inspected and cleaned according to the applicable hygiene regulations in order to make them available again for the next cycle in top quality. Through this pooling principle, all parties not only save money, but also reduce their environmental footprint.

Close cooperation with IFCO

One factor contributing to the success of the collaboration was the close cooperation between SOK and IFCO in the development of conveyor belts. The designers of the logistics subsidiary Inex extensively tested how the transport of the RPCs in the warehouse succeeds as efficiently as possible. “Our customer chose a particular material because it works best with the conveyor belts,” says IFCO CEO Orgeldinger. “In a project of this magnitude, collaboration, dialogue and trust are essential.” Logistics Manager Kymäläinen of Inex Oy praises the collaboration with the RPC world leader: “IFCO is always there for us.”

Source: IFCO Systems/Google Translate