In a significant move toward automation in online order picking, H-E-B will deploy a number of microfullfilment facilities at its stores through a partnership with logistics software company Swisslog and using the AutoStore microfulfillment system.
A Swisslog representative declined to specify the number of units or their locations, saying the retailer considered that sensitive competitive information. It is possible some units are already in operation.
AutoStore, founded in Norway more than two decades ago and with U.S. offices in Derry, N.H., uses a cube-and-grid robotic storage and retrieval system said to have inspired a similar deployment in grocery by the U.K.-based e-tailer Ocado. Its systems have been in use for years in industrial warehouses, but the H-E-B partnership represents its first announced deal with a U.S.-based food retailer.
Swisslog said the automated microfulfillment centers would enhance H-E-B leadership by streamlining online fulfillment and moving it closer to the customer. It will allow the retail chain to more efficiently meet the growing demand for curbside pickup without negatively impacting customer experience in the store. AutoStore units can be deployed in store backrooms of about 12,000 square feet or in adjacent locations such as dark stores, providing considerable cost and speed benefits vs. picking items off store shelves, particularly now as the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered big increases in demand for online shopping.
“Swisslog is pleased H-E-B put their trust in us to automate and support their facilities with state-of-the-art automation and software,” said Mitch Hayes, VP of e-commerce and retail for Swisslog Logistics Automation, Americas. “COVID-19 and anticipated behavioral changes have created increased urgency around the need for automation within many grocery operations. E-grocery automation is no longer an option. … It’s a requirement for survival and continued growth.”
H-E-B's new microfulfillment centers feature AutoStore empowered by Swisslog’s SynQ software and pick stations. Swisslog called this goods-to-person solution one of the most flexible automation solutions available for order fulfillment in e-grocery where density, operator productivity and lead time are important factors. Swisslog says it is the largest and most experienced integrator of the AutoStore system, with more than 170 installations worldwide.
H-E-B, based in San Antonio, operates more than 400 stores in Texas and Mexico. The company also operates Central Market, a fresh-food emporium. The company, named Grocery Business of the Year by WGB this year, has annual sales of $28 billion and employs more than 120,000.