Ryan Companies deliver automated distribution center for Kroger.
By Keith Loria

In 2019, grocery retailer The Kroger Co. wanted a new fulfillment center built in Forest Park, Georgia. Kroger wanted spaces for distribution, including four levels of mezzanines, office and maintenance and three temperature zones in a warehouse.

Ryan Companies U.S., Inc., was chosen to design-build the 419,317-square-foot Kroger Fulfillment Center. It’s one of the first of its kind in the United States, as it offers seamless, efficient and comprehensive fulfillment with direct-to-consumer grocery service. This is accomplished using a heavily automated facility featuring hundreds of advanced robots managed by air-traffic control systems.

“While this was our third project for Kroger with Ocado automation, the schedule dictated that all three sites be designed nearly concurrently,” says Eric Morin, Vice President of Architecture, Industrial at Ryan Companies. “Tracking the design iteration and developments across three projects simultaneously required excellent communication with Kroger Fulfillment, Ocado and our field teams.”

Building a relationship with Kroger through partnership, vision and innovation enabled Ryan Companies to deliver an entirely new industrial project and establish a vital process for moving forward.

“It also created true partnership as our teams grew together throughout the design experience, sharing common goals and values, high standards, a deep belief in the value of the projects and an appreciation for quality work,” Morin says. ‘By partnering with Kroger to enter a new chapter, we helped translate its vision into this leading-edge automated distribution center that is also a rewarding place to work.”

The project broke ground December 2019, and shortly after began one of the rainiest springs in the recorded history of Atlanta, Georgia. The ambient chamber was turned over to Kroger Fulfillment/Ocado to begin the automation build 12 months later in December 2020, and the cooler and freezer chambers were turned over in February 2021.

Innovative Design

Ocado’s automation system is Kroger Fulfillment’s latest innovation story. The facility features four distinct levels and uses a combination of robots and humans to fulfill grocery orders for delivery. The robots, carrying totes with products, dart across huge 3D grids – called “the hive” – managed by air-traffic control systems.

To prepare for delivery, the robots retrieve the products from the hive and bring them to pick stations where items are sorted for delivery. Algorithms control the pick-and-sort process to ensure that products are packed intelligently, with fragile items on top and bags evenly weighted. Conveyors carry the food collected by the robots to the lower levels for packing and loading by people.

“Aside from the inherent innovation that resides in the Ocado solution, we led this design with the use of innovative technology,” says Matt Obbink, Associate Director of Architecture, Industrial at Ryan Companies. “Our Virtual Design Construction (VDC) team supported our design efforts with everything from video animations to facilitate city approvals, virtual reality headsets to better understand operations within the buildings and renderings to support Kroger internal investment approvals. We were enabled by 3D and 4D modeling to be able to clearly communicate with all stakeholders, smooth the approval process and increase collaboration.”

Approximately 50% of the warehouse space is refrigerated to 34 degrees Fahrenheit. There is also a -10-degree freezer and space controlled to typical grocery store ambient temperature.

Sustainable Measures

The project team designed a super-efficient building envelope including a white roof that reduces the heat island effect. The design also includes an enhanced vapor barrier under the concrete slabs on grade and reclaimed cement dust is utilized for soil stabilization.

Ryan Companies diverted 75% of waste from the project, and utilized low embodied carbon finish materials throughout.

All lighting is LED, and occupancy sensors were added throughout the facility so only occupied areas would be lit. Large windows in non-storage areas provide plenty of daylight and less need for electric light.

Overcoming Challenges

Since the prototype for the facility was the first of its kind in the United States, there was no familiarity with the solution and that presented some challenges.

Ryan Companies took on the heavy lifting from the onset of the partnership. The team navigated everything from fire suppression systems and building code expectations to municipalities, entitlement processes, material flow and multiple temperatures. Ryan Companies also provided Kroger with education on the technical aspects of the project, translating U.K. concepts, and paving the way for future Kroger facilities.

“Our team members immersed themselves in understanding the operational metrics so that they were able to clearly anticipate the needs of the client, allowing them to make recommendations to the Kroger team regarding appropriate size and layout for their operational needs,” says Jerry Stout, Director of Business Development for Ryan Companies.

The project is part of a larger industrial park on the closed Fort Gillem Army Base. Building on a former Army base posed its own challenges, from requiring training for unexploded ordinances to watching for remains of foundations, roads and supplies. “Additionally, the site was graded out by the Army with undocumented fill, requiring removal and re-compaction in order to construct the building pad,” Stout says. “In some areas, these excavations went 20 feet.”

The building is also adjacent to a nearly 1 million-square-foot Kroger Distribution Center with which it shares parking and several utilities. It also shares a power source that had to be meticulously rerouted during construction to avoid power downtime at the existing building.

“Coordinating the site plan and construction efforts alongside the operations of the existing distribution center were a challenge,” Stout says.

The design team also needed to meticulously create a design that met the requirements of the robotics placed in the warehouse.

“A focal point of the vision was integration of the automation,” Morin says. “Ryan Companies stepped up to help Ocado coordinate their own solution while finding ways to best communicate, share files and support their team members, many of whom were working on their first project.”

When Ocado proposed a traditional design-build approach for the facility, the company used its automation solution experience and insight to merge schedules, increase efficiency, reduce costs and shave the timeline from 24 to 14 months.

And even with four months of record rainfall threatening the project at inception, the Ryan Companies was able to deliver the project on time and on budget. This they attribute to a successful plan of stabilizing the soil with cement dust and keeping open communication with subcontractors.

“The Ryan team had to be nimble and work meticulously to create a design that met the requirements of the robotics placed in the warehouse,” Obbink says. “By stabilizing the soil with cement dust and keeping open communication with subcontractors, the project pushed forward. Weekly collaboration meetings helped us adapt to fast-paced changes and meet all of Kroger’s and Ocado’s requirements.”

A Team Approach

To achieve the goals of the project, flexibility and trust were essential.

“Kroger knew it could count on us for our foresight, having a clear understanding of their project goals and what it would take to get there,” Stout says. “We developed further trust through our ability to anticipate solutions, offer strong attention to detail, incorporate high standards and work quickly through challenges. Our design team remained flexible throughout frequent changes, knowing that it was as much about creating a new process as constructing a project.”

As the anchor of the project, Ryan Companies provided seamless integration between Kroger, Ocado and its own teams resulting in coordinated delivery and consistent outcomes.

“Using 3D visualization as a communication tool to show the facility’s building and operations, we were able to provide comfort and ensure trust with the customer,” Stout says. “Serving as a funnel among the stakeholders, our design team helped to boil down complex information and carry out consistent messaging.”

Up and Running

The facility fulfills around 1,000 grocery orders daily for same-day, next-day or scheduled delivery, within a delivery radius of 90 miles, right to the customer’s doorstep.

“This $55 million project and its new-to-market advanced warehousing technology is contributing to the first step of the supply chain and supporting change within the industry for more fulfillment of perishable foods,” Stout says. “Robots picking orders is more efficient customer procurement compared to customers traveling to the stores. There is also greater quality control of the products than in a traditional store, improving the end product provided to customers.”


KEITH LORIA is an award-winning journalist who has been writing for major newspapers and magazines for close to 20 years, on topics as diverse as sports, business and technology. EMAIL: freelancekeith@gmail.com


August 1, 2023


Cold Chain Development, Design Build, Energy, Sustainability, Technology