As warehouse automation heats up, experts weigh in on what design-build firms need to know.

Scarcity of land and labor, as well as rising energy costs, have historically driven warehouse automation in the cold chain. Today, automation is also being propelled by a powerful, new engine — the consumer.

E-commerce represents about 20% of global retail sales today, a number most experts expect to top 30% by the end of this decade. Its rise, coupled with ongoing retail sector transformation, is changing consumer expectations. E-commerce is also pressing centralized warehouses to accommodate smaller orders, at the case and sometimes even at the piece level. “People want everything now. The speed to market has to be now,” observes Randy Jennings, Vice President of Primus Solutions Group, the automation design division of Primus Builders. Third-party logistics public refrigerated warehouse operations are the part of the supply chain that has to “be able to flex and ebb and flow,” he says. Today, a retail distributor may break down a pallet load of product and send it to 20 or more stores, Jennings explains, or they may receive several pallets and send product to more than 100 stores. But for slower moving products, they may receive only a couple of layers and send product to a handful of stores. Richard Kooistra, President, Automated Solutions with Twinlode Automation, also notes that e-commerce has caused material flow patterns to change as order sizes have declined. “That whole paradigm is changing now,” he observes, adding that the trend toward decreased order sizes adds complexity to warehouse operations. “If I can go full pallet in and full pallet out, that’s fairly straightforward. If I go full pallet in and then have to go case out, there’s a lot of different steps and procedures that I need to be able to go through in order to do that.”

Technology Brings Solutions and Complexity

Technology and automation options like automated storage retrieval systems (ASRS) and stacker cranes are making it possible to solve several important challenges. They use scarce space more efficiently with a vertical building configuration. These arrangements require a much smaller piece of land and have the added advantage of a smaller roofline, which minimizes heat loss. These highly technical operations also have dramatically different personnel requirements. They need fewer laborers and more tech-savvy workers. Attracting these workers in the first place, however, may require cold storage operators to educate candidates about the opportunity, suggests Kooistra. “It’s not a sexy industry, where people coming out of university are saying, ‘Oh, I want to work in the cold chain, I want to work in supply chain,’” he says. In addition to that, operational and personnel considerations may be working at cross-purposes. For example, many cold chain operations are driven away from city centers — and away from areas where young people prefer to live — by the price and availability of even small parcels of land. And in addition by building codes that put taller small-footprint facilities at a disadvantage. Nonetheless, “these jobs are less physical and more desirable,” notes Operations and Automation Advisor Bob Whitmore of DLN Integrated Systems, a solutions provider with experience across a variety of distribution systems, particularly in the food and beverage industry.

“We need to be prepared for a future state in which very few people may be willing to work various shifts in sub-zero temperatures while doing heavy manual labor.” Twinlode is currently partnering with a design-build firm on a project that bridges the divide between manual and automated processes. Though the project aims to automate only a portion of an existing facility, it will require a substantial investment by the large cold storage provider client. The cold storage firm is looking to automate its manual process for the transfer of product from a blast freezer to a regular freezer. The project focuses on process elements that are consuming excess time and labor resources. “There’s just that little piece, but we have to redesign a part of the building envelope to implement the solution,” observes Kooistra.

Steps to Shovels in the Ground

When a warehouse owner is ready to make a decision about automation, Jennings says they are often ready to see shovels in the ground immediately. The automation provider typically is not ready for another six months with all the details needed to break ground. For example, architects, engineers and design-build contractors need to know:

  • Locations for all the point loadings of steel legs in the ASRS rack system for proper floor loading design
  • How much weight the concrete floor will bear at specific points and where every point makes contact on the concrete floor
  • Characteristics of the fire protection system, where the water source is and how the piping is run inside the ASRS rack system
  • Exactly how many dock doors are needed and where they should be located for efficient operation
  • How deep, tall, long and wide the final structure will be, key to support a zoning variance

“We need to know those exacting positions and points to make the most efficient facility that we can for our customers and their longterm operations,” Jennings says. “If you don’t know that information, you start to guess, or you assume. And we all know that’s never a formula for success.” Whitmore echoes these thoughts, adding that automation choices also may affect building specifications such as rack (including rack-supported structure), floorflatness, column spacing, electrical service and the RF system. He also cautions that installation of automation within a weather-tight building may move the project up an entire construction season. “Automation equipment should be delivered to a nearly finished site that is clean, dry and secure,” Whitmore says.

Designing an Automated Warehouse System

“The main objective is to avoid shoe-horning an automated design into a building design,” says Whitmore. “Design automation first and design a structure around the system. I strongly suggest introducing a good preconstruction team early during system design to increase the success of the site selection and construction process and reduce rework.” Jennings agrees. “As you approach this, one of the things that’s most critical is to get the people involved early on in the decisionmaking process of what you’re doing in the overall function and flow of the facility.” Jennings offers a step-by-step framework for automated warehouse system design. Step one, advises Jennings, should always be to collect and analyze data. He advises looking at up to a year of historical order data to see seasonality and peaks and valleys in the operation. The item master is also a typical part of data analysis. From there, Jennings says a functional flow of what the facility is supposed to do can be created. “You create what’s called a material flow diagram so that you can provide the information to all the different engineering staffs for how you need to configure the facility, and then you start to look at the different designs and options,” advises Jennings. At this point, throughput calculations that leverage internationally recognized standards are helpful to eliminate options that simply do not meet the need. Once decisions have been made about designs and options, the systems architecture can be determined. Integration with the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system becomes a consideration at this point. The ERP also must interface to a warehouse management system (WMS). The WMS interfaces to a warehouse control system (WCS) at the programmable logic controller (PLC) level to ensure that every motor in every sensor can be controlled. “When you put that together, different solutions bring a different value and have a different cost,” says Jennings. “Also, you may put together a solution that may take you 24 to 30 months to implement as opposed to one that you can get done in 18 months that will get you a better return sooner.”

A Role for All in Automation

Although there is strong consensus for a better and faster return on automation investments by larger cold storage firms, Whitmore makes the case that all firms have work to do. “There is a lot of truth to the fact that higher-volume distribution centers can generate a larger return, sooner than their smaller counterparts … This may paint a picture that the future of automation of small or mediumsize facilities is bleak, but I believe that there are other opportunities for smaller facilities,” Whitmore argues. A good place for smaller firms to start, says Whitmore, is with a smaller automation solution that integrates with traditional methods. “A hybrid operation can lessen the service disruption risk of a very large and complex system, while forcing the development and discipline within the operation as well as development of an effective WMS or WCS system.” “A gamble that I think organizations are making when they pass on automation in the near term, is the risk that WMS/WCS system development and warehouse best practices are not being developed because of the decision,” cautions Whitmore. “The technical roadmaps should continue to be developed to be prepared for the time when automation may be a requirement for survival.”Whitmore says, if you’re ever going to automate, you need to be thinking about it today. “Whether or not you have an approved project, warehouse technical roadmaps should be inclusive of the visibility and control that automation will require in the future,” Whitmore notes. “Best practices around routing, workload creation, workload, and production status, etc. need to be in place when the time comes. New buildings should be constructed with future automation in mind.” “Every organization needs to invest in readiness for automation regardless of the near-term capital plan,” concludes Whitmore.

Gina Veazey is a writer and editor based in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, who specializes in health care and other topics. EMAIL:

Source: Cold Facts September/October 2022 issue


September 29, 2022


Gina Veazey