7 Efficient Automation Solutions for Wine and Spirits Distribution

wine and spirits warehouse solutions for distribution blog post

Distributing wine and spirits is a delicate and demanding operation. Warehouses are expected to process, store, and fulfill a massive catalog of products to a wide portfolio of clients, all with their own special requests. An operations employee in a distribution warehouse has their work cut out for them, as the constant supply and demand fluctuates depending on a multitude of factors like seasonality, geography, product timing, and more.

Investing in an automated wine and spirits warehouse solution can absolutely support operations in more ways than one, moving product safely, quickly, and where it needs to be. Evaluating current warehouse operations is certainly a smart move, especially considering the status of the wine and spirits industry now, and in the near future.

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“We believe there is a permanent consumer shift to more online purchases of wine, which will expand with the coming of age of millennial consumers.”

SVB: State of the Wine Industry Report 2021

To help in your evaluation, here are 7 cost-saving and effective warehouse solutions that’ll support your wine and spirits distribution operations.

1. Labeling and shipping costs

Correct labeling of alcoholic beverages is not only important for delivery operations but needed for state alcohol regulations and the associated shipping costs. Recurring mislabeling can incur hefty fees and make distribution a headache. Automated print and apply systems can streamline these processes and lower error rates and are relatively easy to add to a warehouse operation. Labeling machines produce the correct shipping information and apply the label by stamping it as the carton passes by, without the need to pick up or stop the product.

2. Warehouse Management System (WMS)

The ability to have complete visibility of your warehouse inventory at all times is paramount to operating effectively. A warehouse management system (or WMS) stores vital information such as alcohol percentage, storage location, best-by dates for rotation, and a multitude of SKU data for ordering. A WMS can even offer a best shipping rate selector and presents data with correct state alcohol regulations applied.

Besides being a source of important product information, a WMS can apply that information within your warehouse operations. For example, if the wrong item is picked and placed on an outbound conveyor, the scan tower will read the label and the WMS will recognize it is in the wrong batch, stopping that section of conveyor and sounding an alarm for a worker to remove the incorrect item.

3. Direct to consumer wine and spirits shipping

The prevalence of direct-to-consumer (D2C) wine and spirits services continue to grow, with wine clubs, subscription boxes, alcoholic beverage delivery, and other flexible solutions becoming more common with consumers. If you are looking to expand your consumer base, investing in a D2C approach early can prove proliferous in the near future. Order fulfillment automation solutions are versatile enough to fit within any step of your operation, ranging from automatic item picking to shipping label application. The importance of effective packing operations to avoid breakage should also be considered. Careful selection of package erecting, sealing, and void-filling machines are all a part of integrating a wine or liquor order fulfillment warehouse process.

4. Gapping and breakage reduction

An unfortunate truth of the wine and spirits distribution industry is that product breakage can and will happen. All you can do in your warehouse is minimize it. An effective method of doing so is using a zero-pressure accumulation conveyor. These gravity conveyors do no allow products to touch each other, using an array of sensors to properly gap infeeding operations, and stopping when the accumulation zone is full.

To increase product safety, a herringbone (canted rollers) design can be used to avoid product from making contact with side railing and guards. For even more stability, a cascade release function can be implemented, which staggers conveyor zones as product begins to move. This provides a small gap between each product when operations start and stop.

5. Storage solutions for reserves and limited run beverages

Managing a fully stocked wine and spirit storage can get complicated when limited run products and desirables vintages are concerned. This creates a need for both short-term and long-term pallet storage. Automation in the form of an ASRS (automatic storage and retrieval system) can rapidly retrieve pallets that need to be distributed or store long-term inventory in the most optimal spot within a racking system. An ASRS uses a crane attached to a horizontal and vertical track, scaling the racking structure, and using extendable forks to handle pallets. The operator terminal provides information on what product is stored where, and the ASRS operates when a retrieve or store command is inputted.

6. Cross-docking for quick sortation and delivery of non-stored items

Cross-docking is a warehouse operation that processes items, sorts them to the correct location, and sends them right back out for transportation. Packages are introduced and sent to their destination route quickly and efficiently without storing or spending more than 24 hours in a cross-docking operation.

For high-volume wine and spirit warehouses, this method provides extremely effective in getting product to stores or delivering to customers.

7. Flexibility in handling a variety of packaging types

Wine and spirit companies are innovating in specialty packaging types to attract customers in a constantly competitive product environment. Coupled with the growing sales of cannabis, companies are investing a significant amount in resources to ensure their product stands out.

Wine and spirits warehouse distribution operations must be dynamic enough to maintain current clients and attract new ones who have packaging designs that call for special handling. Automation systems, such as conveyors, are manufactured in different dimensions and applications and can be engineered in a warehouse layout to accommodate cartons of varying sizes and fragility.

Century Systems has extensive experience in integrating warehouse automation systems in the wine and spirits material handling industry. View the video below on a system we engineered and integrated with Fedway Associates.

7 ways to avoid bottle damage in your wine and spirits distribution warehouse

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Product damage is a constant loss factor

The largest source of product loss in a wine and spirits distribution operation is undoubtedly bottle breakage and damage. Human error, product movement, and difficult storage methods can all be factors that result in damages.

In the case of one of Century’s wine and spirits clients, implementing our solutions resulted in a 75% decrease in product breakage. To give an example of how impactful that change is, imagine a distributor processing 30,000 cases a day. Each case, on average, is valued at $100 dollars. If their breakage rate is 1.25%, that’s $37,500 dollars lost on product damage from a total of $3,000,000.

A 75% decrease in the breakage rate would result in a much more manageable loss of $22,500- and that number can lower even more depending on the level of automation. That’s close to $5.5 million saved per year.

If your damage rate is on the higher end, it may be worth your time to evaluate your material handling operations. We have some valuable recommendations on where to look first.

  • Indexing Belt Accumulation
  • Warehouse Control Software
  • Cascading Release Function
  • Skewered Roller Design
  • Telescoping Extendables
  • Robotic Palletizing
  • ASRS

1. Indexing Belt Accumulation

An effective method of preventing product breakage is the use of an indexing belt accumulation conveyor. These powered conveyors do not allow products to touch each other, using an array of sensors to properly gap infeeding operations, and stopping when the accumulation zone is full.

The product can be placed normally on the conveyor, and it’ll automatically speed or slow down zones to achieve safe spacing between each package.

2. Warehouse Control Software

Setting the operating parameters on a system play an important part in preventing product breakage. The software, depending on the system manufacturer, controls conveyor zone functions like speed, braking, idling, and more. When a system is first installed, or being upgraded, these settings are fine-tuned for efficiency and safety and can be easily changed in the future if need be. Warehouse Control Systems are versatile and offer a variety of customized system settings.

3. Cascading Release Function

A cascade release function staggers conveyor zones as the product begins to move. This provides a small gap between each product when operations start and stop. This function helps exponentially with end-of-line operations where a truck is being loaded, and the product is accumulating as it’s being moved from the conveyor to the bay.

Instead of the product pushing against each other, the conveyor can stop and move when space is available, to maintain proper gapping so that product never touches.

4. Skewed Roller Design (Herringbone)

To increase product safety, a skewed roller (herringbone) design can be used to avoid product from making contact with side railing and guards.

Skewed rollers are pointed diagonally inward, keeping cases positioned in the middle of the conveyor. Advancements in the packaging of alcohol mean solutions must accommodate a variety of carton dimensions and material types. Skewed roller designs provide additional flexibility and stability in any automated warehouse operation.

5. Telescoping Extendable

Typically, a warehouse worker picks up packages from an outfeeding source, walks over to the truck, and loads it. Even in this simple operation, it’s where most breakage mistakes occur, as employees can drop or jostle cases.

The solution is to eliminate the extra risk of having the worker walk over to the truck. A telescoping extendable conveyor attaches to an outfeeding source and can be operated so it extends into and out of the trailer as the worker loads. This allows for a much more stable operation and minimizes product damage by conveying the product directly to the worker, who places it into the trailer. Extendables can be simple skateroller conveyors on mobile casters or powered units such as the Adjustoveyor.

6. Robotic Palletizing/Depalletizing

For warehouses that use pallets, robotic palletizing solutions automatically handle and can build or deconstruct pallets. A wide variety of robots and end of arm tooling can accommodate most carton sizes and complex layer build configurations for pallets.

The speed and stability of robotic palletizing greatly outpace that of manual pallet building and even lift trucks. For further automation, completed pallets can be conveyed from a robotic cell to an inline stretch wrap operation, replacing tedious manual wrapping.

7. Automatic Pallet Storage

In warehouses that store a high volume of products, stacking pallets is a common sight. The issue is when pallets are being stacked over two high. This creates stress for cartons on the bottom of the supporting pallet, which could compress cartons, cause leakage, or topple the stacked pallets. The risk extends further when considering possible operator error in the action of stacking, such as dropping the pallet from too high or placing it unevenly.

Reducing breakage during storing and retrieving is best achieved by the usage of an ASRS (Automatic Storage and Retrieval System). An ASRS is a rack-supported structure with a track-mounted crane that can be programmed to navigate itself to a racking space to either remove or place a pallet. The advantages are clear, stacking does not need to be used, an automated crane is exponentially more accurate and stable than a forklift, and warehouse space is regained (as racking allows higher stacking, and the aisle for the cranes are thinner than typical racking structures).

Century Systems has extensive experience in integrating warehouse automation systems in the wine and spirits material handling industry. View the video below on a system we engineered and integrated with Fedway Associates.