Automation is on the rise in industrial facilities, food processing plants and cold storage warehouses. At Stellar, we’ve seen more client requests for automation in the past two years than ever before.

An automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) combines equipment and controls to handle, store and retrieve materials or products as needed with precision, accuracy and speed under a defined degree of automation. They can vary from smaller automated systems to larger computer-controlled storage/retrieval systems integrated into a manufacturing and/or distribution process.

While AS/RS can include full pallet transfers and storage, in general they fall into three categories:

  • Shelf-based picking, where an entire tray of product is delivered to an operator.
  • Bin-based picking, where an individual bin or tote is delivered to an operator.
  • Robotic picking, where robots operate within an enclosed shelving system to deliver goods to an operator.  

Here’s an example of how ASRS might look: An employee inputs a command via the computer interface, which prompts the system to send a crane or robot picker on a sled into the warehouse and to the appropriate rack. The crane or robot could then grab the pallet, pull it down, place it on a conveyor and feed it to the loading dock so that it can be loaded onto a truck with a forklift. Robotic picking has become increasingly prevalent with advancing technology, including the demand for dedicated AS/RS warehouse buildings. These automated systems are popular for a reason — several, in fact.

Increased Storage Density in Less Space 

An ASRS has a large vertical storage capacity, with high-rise AS/RS buildings upwards of 140 feet tall in some cases. By automating the conventional racking configuration, fork truck lift height and aisle width create fewer limitations to how close or high a rack can be. Building vertically rather than horizontally increases product density, thereby reducing or eliminating the expensive proposition of acquiring more real estate. This smaller footprint may also save on site development, permitting and other related costs.

In addition to these spatial advantages, companies can also program the automated components to follow the same path and reach the same marks consistently, eliminating the risk of operator damage to fire protection systems. A common concern with in-rack sprinklers is the risk that employee-operated forklifts and their load could come into contact with and damage sprinkler heads. This means companies must design and pay for structural steel guards to protect the in-rack sprinklers, not to mention costs to repair any damaged sprinkler heads. With an ASRS warehouse, however, the automated system will follow the same path each time and is much less likely to damage sprinkler systems.

Maintaining Product Quality, Labor Savings 

Traditional warehouse doors are designed to accommodate both pallets and forklifts. In an automated facility, however, pallets are often conveyed through smaller doors. In refrigerated facilities, these smaller doors are often combined with vestibules to help reduce air leakage, keeping the facility cooler and helping refrigeration systems work less. Products are also less likely to be damaged with automation. Automation eliminates the risk of human error, ensuring product quality isn’t compromised during its time in the warehouse. Mishaps and damaged products in a traditional warehouse cost time and money, whereas the potential for both are reduced in an automated facility 

Of course, automation also helps combat labor market shortages. The growth of e-commerce is only increasing the demand for warehouse and distribution workers, but there are fewer qualified candidates per job due to industry attrition, high turnover, the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors. Owners are having more difficulty finding skilled workers and fork truck operators, making an automated system that much more appealing.

Before Investing in AS/RS 

Of course, an automated retrieval and storage system may not always be viable, and it doesn’t come without its considerations. Securing capital approval to invest in this level of automation can be a hurdle for many companies. While facility owners may realize long-term savings with a fully automated warehouse, a greater initial investment is required to design and build one. However, many companies may incur substantial tax benefits depending on the tax laws and codes that apply to a particular facility. In rack-supported enclosures, the racking that serves as the frame for the building may be classified as equipment. Therefore, the roof and walls are considered components of an equipment enclosure. This categorization can allow these components to be depreciated at an accelerated rate.

An ASRS project will inevitably require a high degree of coordination to execute. Securing automation and racking needs to coincide with the design-build selection process or sooner to ensure timely delivery. While these facilities are built up, not out, significant space is still required and site utilization needs to be thought through in detail during the construction process. A phased delivery approach should be considered in these instances to maximize laydown space for building materials and equipment.

Due to the degree of automation and robotics, a full-fledged ASRS warehouse typically takes longer to build than a traditional one. Once the rack-supported building is constructed and enclosed, the automation provider performs installation and commissioning. In addition, racking and automation equipment lead times can be significant, especially if the racks or components are coming from overseas.

Especially in the food industry, where speed to market is a priority, this longer project schedule can be challenging. But with proper planning, this technology can yield long-term gains and strategic advantages in the market.

As automation technology becomes more affordable, its return on investment is realized sooner. In addition to providing solutions to the rising cost of labor and labor shortages, these secondary benefits are leading more cold storage operators to invest in robotics and automated systems. And in a time when consumer demand for fresher, healthier food is on the rise, the value of efficient cold storage distribution is only predicted to grow.