Tyson Foods and autonomous middle mile logistics solutions provider Gatik AI Inc. recently unveiled their collaborative effort to deploy autonomous refrigerated box trucks to service Tyson Foods’ distribution and storage facilities in Rogers and Springdale in Northwest, Ark. Patrick Simmons, vice president of transportation, Tyson Foods, shares some insights on the delivery program and how it complements Tyson Foods' overall operational efficiency efforts.

What labor-saving advantages does using autonomous trucks offer?

Tyson Foods, like many companies in the business of manufacturing and distributing goods, has felt the impact of the nationwide truck driver shortage. Autonomous vehicles will help solve for the shorter, middle mile routes that transport our chicken, Ball Park franks, and Hillshire Farms products from production facility to distribution centers — typically less than 50 miles. These shorter routes are less desirable for human drivers due to the stop and go, shuttle aspect of the drive, especially in more congested areas.  

The launch of our partnership with Gatik gives our drivers the opportunity for longer routes and preferred transportation positions. A trained safety driver will initially be present in the cab to monitor the autonomous system and take command of operating the truck if required.

What unique challenges did Tyson Foods and Gatik have to resolve during the planning and implementation of the autonomous delivery system?

Gatik has a proven track record of facilitating frequent deliveries across the middle mile using its proprietary, commercial-grade autonomous technology that is purpose built for short-haul logistics, and has a 100% safety track record.  We knew they were the right partners to make that technology work in a refrigerated tractor trailer to keep our fresh and frozen protein products at optimal temperatures. Gatik introduced Class 7 autonomous box trucks equipped with a 26-foot insulated box and complete with refrigeration capabilities to meet Tyson’s high standards for quality and freshness. The higher payload, capacity, and GVWR of these trucks allow us to deliver larger quantities (compared to class 3-7) efficiently and reliably.
What tweaks to Tyson’s distribution center delivery procedures has automated delivery required?

Minimal changes were required to maintain Tyson’s commitment to safety and FSQA procedures.

What type of route do the autonomous trucks take from production facilities to distribution centers?

The pilot route will span Springdale and Rogers in Northwest Arkansas, connecting Tyson’s food processing plant to multiple cold-storage facilities that include Tyson’s own distribution center, where products are organized for final distribution to Tyson’s customers. The autonomous trucks will primarily travel U.S. Highway 71 in a semi-urban environment.

How do autonomous truck deliveries complement Tyson Foods’ related efforts to automate its processes?

The Gatik partnership is one example of our efforts to seek advanced solutions in trucking. In April, we started a pilot project with Kodiak Robotics and C.R. England to autonomously ship Tyson Foods products between Dallas and San Antonio. The test includes one dedicated truck, initially with a trained safety driver aboard, hauling three to five loads per week. C.R. England will have one of its human drivers bring a refrigerated trailer pre-loaded with protein products to Kodiak’s facility outside Dallas, where a Kodiak autonomous truck will transport the trailer to a C.R. England drop yard in San Antonio.
 Tyson Foods is focused on digital enablement and takes a forward-thinking stance when it comes to incorporating the latest technology into our business, aggressively investing in new tools in every aspect of operations. We operate the Tyson Manufacturing Automation Center, designed specifically to help the company develop more automation and robotics for our facilities. In addition, three state-of-the-art plants featuring industry-leading automation production technology are currently under construction in Danville, VA.; Bowling Green, Ky.; and Caseyville, Ill.

And as we get ready to begin our 2024 fiscal year on October 1, we recently created a new enterprise Supply Chain center and appointed the company’s first Chief Supply Chain Officer, Brady Stewart, to lead it. All our efforts are dedicated to the mission of increasing capacity while preserving ease and efficiency for our current team members.  

What operational efficiencies besides freeing up drivers for other tasks does the effort present?

Autonomous trucks allow for more time on the road each day, equating to more deliveries and capacity. The Gatik trucks will run 18 hours daily — four to seven hours more than a human driver can drive under Department of Transportation service rules. Additionally, full truck ownership gives us the added benefit of storage space exclusively for our products. 

What unique cold chain assurance efforts does employing autonomous deliveries require?

In addition to our safety practices, tracking product details, temperature integrity, and load accuracy is of the utmost importance. The use of autonomous vehicles does not introduce any unique processes around our cold chain integrity processes; rather, it equips us with more real time data to further ensure the safety and integrity of our products is maintained. We have worked diligently to ensure Gatik equipment and processes adhere to all Tyson and food safety standards.