Ice Cream Industry Keeps its Cool with Automation and Cold Storage

Get an Inside Scoop on the Ice Cream Supply Chain

The sun is shining, swimming pools are opening, and Independence Day celebrations are right around the corner. Finally - it is summertime. This season feels especially welcome after many of us spent 2020 indoors due to the coronavirus pandemic. The best part? As temperatures rise, infection rates continue to drop in many parts of the country. 323 million doses of the temperature-sensitive COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the United States, largely due to efficient cold chain transportation and storage. Saving thousands of lives and allowing for a summer of overdue reunions with friends and family, the vaccine gives us all a reason to celebrate. And what better way to celebrate than with ice cream? 

It is a delicacy easily taken for granted, especially since many Americans grow up surrounded by the sweet treat. Found in local creameries, pool snack bars, grocery stores - even trucks cruising down residential streets - it is no surprise that ice cream is the United States’ favorite dessert. But very rarely do ice cream lovers step back and think, “Huh, how did such a popular dessert get from a production facility to a cone in my hand?” Although requirements differ from temperature-controlled vaccine distribution, cold chain transportation and storage are also responsible for the ice cream in our freezers.

Evolving Supply Chain Paves Way for Cold Chain Expansion

Before diving into ice cream’s journey down the supply chain, it’s important to understand how the cold chain works. Simply put, the cold chain keeps perishable products fresh while traveling from the point of origin to the consumer. Examples of products that flow down the cold chain include temperature-sensitive foods, beverages, and pharmaceuticals. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates most cold chain products to avoid health and safety risks, ensuring the goods remain within an appropriate temperature range while traveling to consumers. While this process varies by product and operation, phases often include production, storage, distribution, and delivery. These steps must occur within strict, temperature-controlled environments. Many cold chain operations utilize warehouse automation alongside cold storage.

Today’s swiftly changing supply chain landscape creates the perfect storm for cold chain expansion. According to Forbes, “the entire supply chain is rapidly evolving from having a functional orientation to a global and interconnected network of data and processes.” In other words, supply chain processes are becoming increasingly sophisticated, capable of accurately tracking and delivering a wide variety of goods, including frozen foods. This brisk evolution owes itself to several factors. Increasing consumer demand for speedy shipping, advancements in warehouse automation technology, and sustained popularity of pandemic-era online grocery delivery all play significant roles in the evolution and adoption of cold chain distribution. 

Ice Cream Sustains Pandemic Popularity

In the early days of the pandemic, many consumers opted to order their groceries online out of caution. Meal kits, grocery delivery, and curbside pickup saw massive upticks in orders. Large food retailers experiencing a 20-30% surge in sales while frozen foods experienced a 21% increase in sales due to extended shelf life - especially coveted in the wake of food shortages last spring. Additionally, ice cream dollar sales rocketed 13.4% in 2020. And although stay-at-home restrictions were a major catalyst for frozen foods and cold storage demand, consumer interest remains high even as the United States emerges from COVID-19 restrictions. 

The numbers reinforce that cold storage and distribution will remain a necessary part of the global supply chain moving forward. According to a 2020 study by Mercatus, “eGrocery’s New Reality: The Pandemic’s Lasting Impact on U.S. Grocery Shopping Behavior”, the online grocery industry is projected to eat up 21.5% of all grocery sales in the United States by 2025, doubling current market share. Additionally, the same study found that 90% of online grocery shoppers expect to continue their purchasing habits indefinitely, prioritizing convenience and easy delivery 78% more than before the pandemic. 

Frozen Food Warehouses Meet Increased Demand with Automation

Frozen food delivery was gaining popularity even before the pandemic, giving those in the ice cream industry a glimpse of supply chain challenges ahead. Now, even higher consumer expectations necessitate seamless cold chain processes from businesses and logistics partners. The ice cream supply chain typically starts with production followed by transport in a refrigerated truck. Before loading, the trucks are cooled down to ensure the ice cream remains in compliance with strict FDA guidelines. The product is then quickly unloaded at a cold storage facility, where it remains in temperature-controlled conditions until it is picked and transported to a retailer or consumer in refrigerated packaging.

The risk of unwanted heat exposure is highest during the loading and unloading of temperature-sensitive goods. During this process, it is integral to keep the cold chain intact to ensure food quality and especially safety – even during periods of high volume. While some cold storage warehouses in the industry struggle to keep up with order volume amidst labor shortages, other companies optimize material flows by installing warehouse automation equipment. These automated solutions are present in most frozen food warehouses to increase throughput, optimize storage density, reduce errors, and remove employees from harsh working conditions.

Automated Pallet Storage and Retrieval. While processes vary by operation, many in the ice cream market use automated pallet storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) to move palletized goods in and out of cold storage quickly and efficiently. These systems utilize pallet cranes or shuttles combined with high bay warehouse (HBW) racking to store product much denser and higher (up to 148’) than conventional pallet racking.  This can lead to considerable energy savings as it eliminates unused space that must be chilled or frozen even though it doesn’t hold product.

Automated Order Picking. To avoid labor shortages and delays, many cold chain warehouses implement automated order picking. Layer picking is a popular method in frozen food facilities, offering quick fulfillment with incredible accuracy - even during peak times. This strategy utilizes gantry or articulated robots to pick up frozen product in layered quantities, which is a much more efficient pick than having to pick each case individually. Highly flexible and adaptable, robots can strategically pick one or multiple layers off a pallet based on a customer’s order. This builds what is often called a “rainbow pallet” pallet. 

Case Shuttle or Miniload Systems. Warehouses that store products in cases or boxes may benefit from a case shuttle or miniload system. Best suited for case or each level picking applications, these ASRS machines handle and store single cases instead of pallets or layers. These systems can be used in conjunction with pallet ASRS or layer picking systems to add case or each level picking to an operation.

Warehouse Management Systems. Warehouse management systems (WMS) are extremely beneficial for cold chain operations. A reliable WMS like WAMAS from SSI SCHAEFER optimizes product storage, increases labor throughput, supports daily warehouse planning, and even helps allocate resources based on customer demand. Frozen foods operations like those in the ice cream industry use warehouse management systems to reduce movement in freezers to maintain temperature, gain complete inventory visibility, monitor workflow, and manage returns, receiving, and picking. In a cold storage environment, energy and workflow efficiency is key to minimizing product loss. Warehouse management systems (WMS) allow supervisors a complete view of operations, ensuring that processes run smoothly to meet both cold chain regulations and customer expectations. 

Logistics operations must consider numerous factors when setting up a functional, dependable cold chain for any temperature-sensitive good - even a product as lighthearted and delicious as ice cream. Each year, the average American consumes 22 pounds of ice cream, much of which goes through a very complex process to reach the freezer at the grocery store – on your porch.

The frozen foods industry requires expertise to navigate guidelines, equipment, and cold chain strategy. SSI SCHAEFER has been a trusted partner for clients since 1937, delivering the highest quality customer service and equipment possible.

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