If you’ve ever worked in a freezer or even just walked in and out of one for brief periods of time, you know—it’s cold! But, exposing employees to harsh conditions can no longer be acceptable.

Case in point—the human body wasn’t designed to work in sub-zero temperatures, yet the majority of frozen food operations still conduct warehousing activities manually, says Dan Labell, president of Westfalia Technologies, Inc.

“Cold storage facilities are difficult places to work and typically require frequent warm-up breaks,” he adds. “Today, automation is being used more often to deliver product from a freezer to a warmer environment for picking. Automation is not being used to replace labor, but to decouple it from the necessity of working in a sub-zero environment.”

Thankfully, today’s automated storage retrieval systems (AS/RS) make it so workers can complete tasks in normal temperatures without disrupting the mission.

Flexibility meets energy-efficiency

Westfalia Technologies, Inc., York, Pa., provides a bevy of solutions complete with flexibility and energy-efficient features.

For starters, Westfalia’s automated high-density multiple deep storage systems can store unit loads from 3-18 pallets deep, reducing the number of aisles required. A pick tunnel located in the freezer is another alternative, Labell says, which could be coupled with automated dynamic slotting or static slotting for fast movers.

“Routing product to a warmer ‘flex space’ whenever possible might also be ideal,” says Labell. “The pick tunnel is also flex space, and a customer might pick in one, the other or both depending on [the] need.”

Westfalia’s AS/RS deploy anywhere from 500-42,000 pallet positions and can be constructed up to 150 feet tall.

Plug-and-play AS/RS units

Sapient Automation, Hatfield, Pa., has introduced three new AS/RS products over the past couple of years.

First is its Mini-Avenger Portable Vertical Carousel, which comes fully assembled and is designed as a plug-and-play unit that fits through a standard doorway. With a push of a button, click of the mouse or scan of a barcode, the carousel rotates via the shortest path to deliver items to the operator. This system includes an array of pick-to-light technologies such as simple light indicators and full message transaction indicator lights. Plus, individual user passwords and bi-parting doors that lock keep unauthorized users from accessing the unit.

Secondly, Sapient’s Refrigerated Viper Vertical Lift Module can either work in cold room or in modular refrigerated construction. From large items to totes and containers to partitions, dividers and pallets, the Viper VLM provides high-density storage with 100% ergonomic accessibility thanks to its patented tilt tray delivery system and onboard controls database. It delivers a tray-to-the-pick window, where the ViperTilt automatically lifts the rear of the tray up toward the operator from a 25- to 45-degree angle. The tilt tray design allows all operators to easily reach parts stored in the front and rear of the tray without stretching, reaching and bending.

Lastly, the C-AS/RS is a mix of horizontal carousels and robotic insert/extractors for remote picking operations or buffer storage. The main driving principle to the C-AS/RS system is bringing the goods right to the operator. Space permitting, up to three carousels can be “stacked,” yielding increased storage density. Rather the C-AS/RS system’s dual order platform picks from an active pre-positioned carousel, the system is either picking or replenishing product inventory.

“In today’s ever-changing business environment, cold food processors are looking for solutions that have flexibility, low cost of ownership and quick return on investment,” says Sam Hostvedt, vice president of sales and marketing. “The cold storage products that we are introducing this year are designed around those three important characteristics.” 

Keep inventory moving during downtime

Integrated Systems Design, Wixom, Mich., developed the Mid-Load UltraStore AS/RS, which is designed to keep inventory moving during downtime.>

Equipped with an optional Perfect-Uptime feature, the Mid-Load allows inventory to be accessed for mission critical inventory and material, even during preventative maintenance periods. The Mid-Load is surface mounted and does not require center railing.

“Not all inventory is equal,” says Ed Romaine, CMO, vice president of marketing. “Understand the characteristics that make one group/type of inventory different from the other and figure out the best ways of saving space and labor while increasing speed/throughput and accuracy levels. In some cases, this can be temperature conditions, other times it might be based on pallet, case or split case handling, it might be FIFO vs. LIFO, it might be value, security or lot handling of specific inventory. Divide and conquer to improve efficiencies and profitability.”

Equipped with a freezer rating

Coming this June is a Multishuttle system that’s equipped with a freezer rating. Manufactured by Dematic Corp., Grand Rapids, Mich., the Multishuttle system is a high-storage density AS/RS that can be used as a buffer, sequencer and order consolidation system for cases and totes and allows companies to be more “nimble” in their order fulfillment operations, says Sean O’Farrell, market development director.

“Cold food processors want the ability to pick orders quickly and accurately while keeping product quality up and costs down,” says O’Farrell. “Companies are looking for ways to best utilize their automation assets. Besides automated put-away/storage of received pallets and replenishment to a pick face, a unit load AS/RS can stage outbound order pallets for added functionality. The unit load AS/RS becomes a sort of ‘use-point manager’ while freeing up dock space for other activities like value-added services.”

Automatic pick-to-pallet

System Logistics Corp., Lewiston, Maine, launched an automatic pick-to-pallet system (APPS) for beverages and liquid foods. Designed on the basis of its modular order picking system, APPS can break down single-code pallets according to incoming orders and configure multi-code pallets in even the most complex situation.

Today’s AS/RS make it so any mission is possible.