UNFI kicks off deployment of distribution center automation platform

New Symbotic robotics and expanded rollout of SAE scanning solutions are part of the distributor's supply chain transformation.
UNFI-Symbotic automation robotics deployment
United Natural Foods Inc. said Symbotic’s solution brings robotic case-pick capabilities and will be used within the Centralia, Wash., distribution center's dry grocery area. / Photo courtesy of UNFI

United Natural Foods Inc. gave an update on technology projects aimed at driving the distributor’s supply-chain transformation strategy.

Providence, Rhode Island-based UNFI said it plans to deploy new Symbotic robotics and automation software at its 1.15 million-square-foot distribution center in Centralia, Washington. The facility will be the first to get Symbotic’s automation, which provides robotic case-pick capabilities, under a deal announced in September that calls for the platform to deploy to five UNFI distribution centers over a four-year period.

Preparation work for the Symbotic installation in the Centralia distribution center is slated to start this month, with testing, training and the full system rollout expected in 2024, UNFI reported. The wholesaler said Symbotic’s end-to-end solution will be used in the facility’s dry grocery area to sharpen operational capabilities and efficiency, improve order accuracy for customers, and better organize products on pallets to enhance the store-level experience.

“Our Centralia distribution center supports a large customer base in the Pacific Northwest, including retailers in Alaska and export customers through the Port of Washington,” UNFI Chief Supply Chain Transformation Officer Erin Horvath said in a statement. “To support our growth and a robust retailer base in this region, we’ll be deploying automation to improve the service we provide retailers, better manage external labor resources, and create a more efficient operating network system in the Pacific Northwest over time.

“These actions are key pillars of our overall transformation agenda, including our mission to invest in service, quality and efficiency improvements for our existing and future customers and delivering more profitability for our shareholders,” added Horvath, who joined UNFI in the newly created role in October.

For the past year, UNFI also has been working to modernize its distribution capabilities through the implementation of barcode-scanning technology from Systems Application Enterprises (SAE). Solutions being deployed include SAE’s Selector Pro, which directs scan-based selection activities to improve order accuracy and provide real-time workforce visibility across the warehouse; Loader Pro, which directs scan-based loading activities to boost outbound delivery accuracy and efficiency; and Driver Pro, which provides “proof of delivery” via scan-based validation of each customer order.

UNFI said the SAE tools are now live at 18 distribution centers and are scheduled to roll out to additional facilities in 2023 and 2024.

“The efficiency of our supply chain is fundamental to our customer experience. We have been engaged in a detailed review focused on broadly improving our operations,” according to Horvath. “This includes strengthening our standard operating procedures across our 56 distribution centers, training associates for improved speed and accuracy, and implementing technology and automation tools to enable greater network capacity, scalability and profitability. Our goal is for customers to benefit from the comprehensive and innovative product offerings we provide, while continuing to make doing business with UNFI easier and our end-to-end supply chain more efficient.”

North America’s largest publicly traded grocery distributor, UNFI operates 56 distribution centers and supplies more than 30,000 retailers in the United States and Canada, including natural product superstores, independent retailers, conventional supermarket chains, e-commerce retailers and foodservice providers.

Earlier this month, UNFI CEO Sandy Douglas said the distributor is pursuing a multifaceted transformation plan focusing on services, wholesale, retail, and corporate and business operations. The move came as the company posted disappointing fiscal 2023 second-quarter earnings that triggered a nearly 30% drop in its stock price.



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