Take The Chill Out Of High-Priced Labor

Automated systems are effective at reducing workers needed in cold storage areas.


With an automated solution, it was able to minimize the building size requirements. In the end, it had a 213-foot-long, 95-foot-wide and 102-foot-high rack-supported freezer complete with 40 bays of storage and a single aisle, with two high-speed storage retrieval machines servicing 10-deep storage lanes on both sides of the aisle. The entire facility measures just 20,235 square feet and has enough capacity for 11,886 pallet loads.

Organic Valley Family of Farms, LaFarge, WI, turned to automation for its cold storage needs for many of the same reasons. When the company opens a new $15 million, 80,000-square-foot distribution center in Cashton, WI, in mid-2007, three AS/RS machines from Westfalia will operate in the temperature-controlled areas used to store fluid milk from Midwest dairy farms and other specialty products.

Two AS/RS cranes will move throughout the 35-40-degree cooler area and one crane will operate in the minus-10-degree freezer. The storage racks will stand 80 feet tall and have the capacity to handle up to 12,000 loads of Organic Valley products.

More than 50 Organic Valley employees will work at the facility, which is being built to bring multiple distribution operations under one roof.
“The AS/RS allows this facility to havea smaller footprint than typical ware-houses,” says Louise Hemstead, Organic Valley’s chief operating officer. “We want to use as few land resources as possible.”

Real estate concerns were also an impetus for Blue Bell Creameries. “We had reached the point where we needed additional cold storage capacity,” explains Supak, “and be-cause of the limited space, our only real option was a high-rise room using AS/RS.”

For these firms, operational efficiencies and worker safety are also part of the equation.

“We also expect the system will enhance our inventory management and virtually eliminate product loss due to expiration dates,” Hemstead says. “Safety is improved since employees are not moving heavy loads overhead as they would in conventional warehouses.”

The AS/RS also allows for improved employee working conditions. The building can be kept at more moderate temperatures. Customer requests also can be met more quickly since AS/RS improves inventory numbers, she continues.

Cost Concerns
It’s because of these benefits that AS/RS has found a home in the food industry. The systems work well in both cold and dry storage, but there is a stronger business case in cold storage, system suppliers agree. Many companies that have employed these systems there have seen a return on investment in less than three years.

Several retailers, such as Royal Ahold’s Stop & Shop chain and Kroger, have employed AS/RS in their distribution centers, but “automation is more common on the food manufacturing side,” observes Juergen Baumbach, director of consulting services at European material handling firm Swisslog. “More firms are bringing product in from an automated production line and putting them in cases and on pallets which go right into the warehouse AS/RS.”

As interest grows for these systems in the United States, the one obstacle that solution providers have had to overcome is the belief that systems cost too much money and cannot be placed in existing warehouse facilities.

“With these types of systems, you can automate existing facilities,” says Jay Adams a food and beverage account manager at HK Systems. “So many people think they will have to build a whole new facility, and that’s just not the case.”

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