Earlier this year, Ocado unveiled a raft of new technologies, from lighter robots to automated grocery picking, hoping to market them to other businesses who wanted to emulate their warehouse automation.

A few months later, Amazon announced a $1 billion Amazon Industrial Innovation Fund (AIIF), with their first round of investment going to companies like Agility Robotics.

Most recently, Walmart announced plans to implement Symbotic robotics software in all 42 of Walmart’s US regional distribution centres over the coming years.

Although robots are already well established in the manufacturing industry, these retail giants demonstrate that their use in fulfilment warehouses is increasing. Gartner predicts that by 2026, 75% of large warehouse enterprises will have adopted some form of smart robots.

However, is warehouse automation the answer for Food and Drink Wholesalers wanting to improve supply chain efficiencies?

An initial glance at various statistics from the technology suppliers makes it appear that robots are the ultimate answer. Ocado forecasts a 30-40% reduction in labour costs from greater automation. Wise robotics state that their Goods-to-Person robots can increase picking efficiency by over 200%. Sounds great!

However, wholesalers should remain cautious because robotic systems designed for the warehouse are still in their infancy. Therefore, the time and costs to get an automated warehouse system in place are still high. According to one report, to construct, fit-out and commission an automated fulfilment centre like Ocado can cost around £40m apiece. They are also not yet sophisticated enough to handle the delicacies of food and drink handling.

In addition, although Ocado says their new technology can be retrofitted into existing buildings, there still may be space and structural hurdles to overcome, which means automated solutions are not the best fit for existing warehouses.

As a result, demand in the food and drink wholesale industry remains relatively low at present. Nevertheless, with constantly shifting consumer habits, labour shortages and rising costs, there is no doubt that warehouse automation and robotics will become increasingly prevalent for wholesale distributors. Watch this space!