Giant Eagle makes the case for mobile robots

Robotic industrial trucks are driving efficiencies in Giant Eagle’s distribution centers. Here’s what the rest of us can learn from an early adopter of robotic technology.

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New materials handling technologies, like robotics, are a little like concept cars at the auto show. It is fun to dream, but most of us hesitate to buy one as the primary family auto. Similarly, systems integrators and distribution center managers are kicking the tires when it comes to materials handling robots; many, however, are waiting to see how the early adopters fare before driving one home.

Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle is turning early adoption into a competitive advantage. One of the nation’s largest privately held multi-format fuel, food and pharmacy retailers, Giant Eagle is an early adopter of pallet-handling robotic industrial trucks (Seegrid,, a type of mobile robot that resembles an operator-less lift truck. The company began testing the idea of using the trucks for putaway operations in the fall of 2007. Since then, Giant Eagle has put into service four double robotic pallet trucks (vehicles that can handle two pallets at a time) in a 440,000-square-foot distribution center outside of Pittsburgh. Another four trucks are working at a retail support center, or RSC, as Giant Eagle refers to its DCs, in Cleveland. 

(See the system layout that helps Giant Eagle put food on the table.)

The trucks are used to automatically move two inbound pallets at a time from the receiving area to drop-off locations serving the most distant locations in reserve storage. They move between 20% and 30% of the inbound receipts. In the Pittsburgh RSC, they complement other automated technologies, including an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) with 12,000 pallet locations serviced by three cranes and a voice-directed picking solution.
The result, says Joe Hurley, senior vice president of distribution and logistics, has been a reduction of manned travel for putaway and an increase in the productivity for the lift truck fleet. 

“We have reduced manned travel for putaway by 20% to 30%, and we increased the high lift pallet per hour by 20%,” Hurley says. What’s more, robotic industrial trucks have freed lift truck operators up for more valuable processes, such as replenishment and picking. Finally, the vehicles are contributing to Giant Eagle’s competitiveery day,” Hurley says. “We have to keep our warehouses efficient so we can take cost out of the system and reinvest those savings into the value proposition we offer to customers.”

The lessons learned from Giant Eagle’s pilot and deliberate implementation process can serve as a road map for any early adopter considering a new technology.

Exploring robotics
With nearly $10 billion in sales and 36,000 team members, Giant Eagle is ranked No. 29 on the Forbes list of the largest privately held companies. The company operates 229 supermarkets and 187 fuel and convenience stores in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland.

Continuous improvement and automation are part of the company’s distribution DNA. In addition to the AS/RS, a warehouse management system (WMS) and voice-directed picking system, the company uses labor standards to measure productivity. Thanks to that productivity data, Giant Eagle was acutely aware of the distance team members were traveling with conventional lift trucks: 500 miles a day, including 300 miles for putaway processes and 200 miles for replenishment processes. Since putaway is a non-value-added process, Giant Eagle has long been focused on reducing those miles.

“Using operators to move pallets from Point A to Point B, whether it was inbound or outbound, is an age-old problem in distribution,” says Hurley. “Because we measure labor, we know that the travel component accounts for a majority of our labor standard. We wanted to minimize the amount of human travel.” 

Prior to robotic industrial trucks, wire-guided automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) moved a segment of pallets from receiving to reserve storage. However, since paths had to be cut into the concrete to guide the AGVs, the technology was not flexible enough for the seasonality of the products handled by a grocery chain. Flowers at Christmas are handled and stored in different locations than iced tea in the summer. In contrast, the robotic vehicles used by Giant Eagle are guided by a unique vision system that eliminates the need for wire-guided paths, tape or laser reflectors. The vehicles quickly and easily learn a new path to a new drop location when requirements change.

Giant Eagle received its first robotic truck in September 2007. Hurley says there were three objectives for the pilot test: safely incorporate a robot into a busy warehouse environment; effectively create an interface between the robot and Giant Eagle’s WMS to move the right pallets that would increase efficiency and minimize travel; and measure and improve operations. 

“We were taking a leap on a new technology,” Hurley says. “But we knew we had to solve this old problem of travel time.”

Moving the right pallets
From the start, Giant Eagle had determined that robotic industrial trucks would not move every pallet from the receiving dock. Instead, the intent was to create a process that used both lift trucks and robotic trucks to maximize both technologies and deliver productivity improvements. The question was: Which pallets should be moved by the robots, and where should they be delivered to achieve the maximum result?

That calculation didn’t just involve reduced miles traveled. The solution also had to take into account the fact that lift trucks traveled at 7 miles per hour while the robots traveled at 4 miles per hour unloaded and 2.7 miles per hour loaded.

“Our first step was to pull the data around our inbound pallets and then measure the associated travel with each pallet,” says Hurley. “For example, if the average travel time associated with one section was 4 minutes per pallet and another section was 2 minutes per pallet, then we would attack the 4-minute travel time first.”

As a starting point, the Giant Eagle team identified routes that involved travel distances of 200 to 300 feet from the receiving staging area to a drop zone, especially areas where high-velocity, high-cube items are slotted. “You simply can’t put everything in the front of the warehouse,” Hurley says. “That may be efficient for picking, but you sacrifice the ability to group items that are commonly picked together on the outbound side. The most efficient set up for order selection might not work on the retail shelf or in the labor design.”

Once the routes with the greatest opportunity for improvement were identified, Hurley’s team created a delivery process and trained the robot on the route. The process consisted of a few basic steps. In the staging area, a team member loads a stack of two pallets onto the robot and scans a license plate bar code label with a truck-mounted scanner.

Once the WMS displays a putaway location on a screen on the robot, the team member keys in the relevant information and sends the robotic industrial truck on its route. When the vehicle arrives at the drop zone, an onboard bar code scanner reads the license plate bar code on the pallets as the mast is lowered. The WMS alerts a team member in the putaway zone that a load is ready for storage.

“When we started hauling pallets and measuring the results, we were taking between 20% and 30% of the associated travel time out of the process,” Hurley says. “We were excited about that.”

Man vs. machine
Determining what pallets and delivery routes would deliver the most bang for the buck was part of the learning curve. There was also a training curve with team members.

“When team members see a robot, the first thought in their mind is: Will this replace me?” says Hurley. “We emphasized that we could use technology to maximize our team members to deliver better value to our end customer.”

Accordingly, Giant Eagle did not reduce its head count, he adds. Rather, the company was able to reassign lift truck drivers to more valuable tasks, such as replenishment and order selection.

In addition, team members had to learn the rules of the road when interacting with the robots. For instance, if a team member on a lift truck and a team member on a pallet jack are in the same travel path, one is going to go to the left or the right so they can pass one another. The robot, on the other hand, is trained to follow a specific path. “Today, the robots are part of the flow,” Hurley says. “Team members work around them as if they were any other piece of equipment.”

In the spring of 2009, Giant Eagle added a robotic industrial truck in Pittsburgh and brought in two vehicles to the Cleveland facility. In all, Giant Eagle now has a fleet of eight vehicles. In Pittsburgh, robotic industrial trucks are delivering to a total of 14 drop-off locations. With more than five years experience under its belt, Hurley believes robotics will remake the grocery industry in the future.

“Our current design is just the beginning,” Hurley says. “What captures my imagination is the flexibility we get with robots and the possibility of adapting the technology to order selection and our outbound delivery processes. I think we could improve our store-ready pallet building capabilities because we wouldn’t be concerned about the travel component.” 

System suppliers
Robotic industrial trucks: Seegrid
Lift trucks: Raymond,; Yale Materials Handling
Pallet rack: Frazier,
Double pallet jacks: Raymond,; Yale Materials Handling,
Stretch wrap: Manual stretch wrapping
Bar code scanning: Motorola,
Automated storage and retrieval system: Dematic (HK Systems),
Claw attachment: Tygard Machine & Manufacturing,
Warehouse Management System: Manhattan Associates,
Voice-directed picking: Vocollect,

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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