Latest Technology in the Cold Storage Warehouse Part 1: Voice Technology and QuickFreeze Racking System

Because of all the changes going on in the perishable goods and food supply chain recently, refrigerated warehousing operators and public cold storage companies need to move goods differently than in the past.  Challenges with inventory control, inventory management, traceability and food safety can be met by using technology.  This blog series will take a look at various information technology solutions that companies are using in refrigerated warehousing and cold storage warehouse operations.

First, let’s review why food supply chain and logistics are changing so rapidly.  Typically, food and perishable goods tend to be lower margin, particularly in the grocery space so supply chain businesses are continually challenged to find new ways to reduce costs.  Service providers to the food industry, particularly refrigerated warehousing companies and 3PL public cold storage companies are experienced professionals, skilled at maximizing efficiencies.

Another issue that is affecting warehousing of perishable food products is food safety and new regulations.  The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has impacted the way that cold storage and refrigerated warehouses handle inventory control, inventory management and traceability.  Crucial to consumers, warehouses are using technology to improve track and trace of perishable food goods and help with regulatory issues across the supply chain.

Market trends indicate that consumers:

  • Are more health conscious and prefer locally sourced food as well as artisan and ethnically diverse food products
  • Prefer freshly prepared foods over that of food products that are highly processed
  • Have special dietary concerns (gluten-free, lactose intolerance, vegan, etc.)
  • Are concerned about animal welfare, environmental impact and sustainability issues
  • Want multiple delivery options and expect fast, low cost delivery

Perishable foods have shorter shelf lives and spoil much more quickly, leading to concerns about food safety.  Being able to handle and store perishable food goods and to also meet the needs of direct-to-consumer (D2C) order fulfillment is crucial.  Some public cold storage companies and refrigerated warehousing businesses have begun to implement new technologies to speed up the handling of goods and make orders for perishable foods faster to process, key for individual orders to consumers.

Modern cold storage warehouses face new challenges, making the important transition from basic pallet-in/pallet-out to dealing with case and each handling.  Add to that continued labor shortages, need for cost savings, a wider array of value added services and changing demands from a variety of different clients with reduced contractual commitments, and the challenges can seem insurmountable.  Dealing with a customer base that is not loyal poses problems when it comes to investing in technology.  Warehouse operators that invest in technology often do not receive any guarantee that the customer will remain with them long enough for the investments to bear fruit, however not investing in technology is often deal breaker for potential new clients.

Although most cold storage warehouse companies use a warehouse management system, not all systems can meet the challenge of multi-level product handling.  Today, refrigerated warehouses need to be able to receive goods by the pallet, break them down, pick by each then pack it up and get it to the store.  Having a WMS that can interface directly with the client can help develop a stronger relationship and provide greater leverage.

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Some 3PL cold storage warehouse operators have recognized and embraced the value of automation.  Take for example, Conestoga Cold Storage.  With five fully automated cold storage warehouses, Conestoga Cold Storage warehouses have a total storage volume of over 37 million cubic feet of fully computerized warehouse space, distribution centers and cross docks.  By relying on automation and other technologies, Conestoga Cold Storage can operate 24 hours a day.

Here is a Look at Some of the Technologies Being Used in Refrigerated & Cold Storage Warehouses:

 

Voice Technology

Cold storage warehouse operations are some of the toughest in the supply chain logistics industry.  Managing labor costs with the required staffing as efficiently and productively as possible in tough working conditions is often a daily battle.

Utilizing voice technology enables cold storage warehouse workers to remain productive in harsh environments while limiting the time they are exposed to extreme cold.  Wearing gloves in the freezer environment means that warehouse workers have to pull back the heavy insulated portion in order to write or use a barcode scanner.  By relying on voice technology, warehouse workers can pick products more quickly and efficiently.  Labor is not wasted having to double check orders or adjust for missed picks.

Fully automated voice picking systems enable warehouse workers to work hands free, making the most of their time in the freezer.

Mobile devices are equipped with an exclusive identification chip and initial voice conditioning takes 20 to 30 minutes.  As the voice technology system is used on an ongoing basis, it refines and continually updates each worker’s voice profile.

Voice technology typically supports a wide variety of languages, speech pattern solutions and dialects.  The warehouse workforce can usually be trained in less than one day by shadowing another worker.

Case Study:  Vocollect and Burris Logistics

The seventh largest cold storage third party logistics distribution company in the U.S., Burris Logistics is a fifth-generation supply chain business.

With over 70 million cubic feet of refrigerated and freezer space in 17 warehouse facilities, Burris Logistics handles distribution services for wholesalers and retailers in 710 locations.   After evaluating technology improvements for its distribution (DC) operations, Burris Logistics selected Vocollect Voice.

In servicing many “household name” clients, Burris Logistics is expected to bring added value, provide outstanding service and handle accurate, on-time deliveries as efficiently as possible.  Burris Logistics credits Vocollect for being instrumental in its success in providing continually high levels of service.  Vocollect captures actual results that can then be compared to the work-job standard rate to provide insight into worker performance.  This insight has proven useful by providing an accurate picture of workforce performance, key to the company’s incentive program.

Vocollect Voice is used for order selection with such perishable foods as ice cream, bakery, dairy, meats and frozen foods, many of which have varying catch weights.  Using voice technology enables warehouse workers to forego reading and writing down label information during order selection.  Now labor resources are directed via voice to each pick location, then instructed which product to select.

The selection is then confirmed by having the warehouse worker speak check digits in order to capture EAN128 barcodes, case serial numbers and date codes.  To properly service one client, a packaged foods company, Burris Logistics is required to validate case barcodes to support lot tracking and traceability.

The Result:  Vocollect Voice was instrumental in improving Burris Logistics’ operational efficiencies, improved inventory and order accuracy as well as customer service and worker safety.  Additional improvements include inventory tracking, strong measurement capacity Vocollect Voice delivers, time and cost savings.  An added benefit is the improvement in the quality of work life for non-native English-speaking Burris Logistics warehouse workers.  By enabling warehouse workers to respond to the voice control system in their native language, workers are more comfortable and productive.

 

Quick Freeze Racking Zone QF+ Freezing System Tippman Innovation

Developed by Tippmann Group, this innovative patented technology rack freezing system expedites freezing time and reduces the labor involved with the freezing process.

Quick Freeze Racking Zone technology works differently that traditional blast cell.  During the blast freezing process, air follows the path of least resistance.  Because of this cold air does not make contact with all cases evenly, resulting in longer freezing times that require that the blast cell be operated at a much lower temperature in order to reach the required freezing results.

Blast freezing can only be done in a batch process which involves more labor and time, making it more costly than Quick Freeze.

The Quick Freeze process enables cold storage warehouse operators to be able to pull a pallet out that is frozen and replace it with a hot pallet, all without affecting the other pallets.

Designed to pull air through the product,   QuickFreeze technology drags air through each pallet of goods, pulling heat away from the pallet to facilitate faster, more consistent and predictable freezing.  Because QuickFreeze can freeze product at a higher temperature than traditional blast freezing, utility costs will be reduced.  Freezing the product in a warehouse storage racking system reduces the number of times that the inventory is moved.  Freezing inventory more quickly reduces the amount of space that must be reserved for freezing as well as the amount of goods you have engaged in the freezing process.

The advantages of utilizing the QF+ QuickFreezing System make the value of using this new technology apparent.   As compared to a traditional blast freezer, the QuickFreeze system can be constructed at a lower cost per pallet position. Using QuickFreeze enables cold storage warehouse operators to receive a 50-100% increase in throughput per pallet position.

The QF+ QuickFreezing System can accommodate pallets of differing heights within a specific range of variance and is flexible enough to be reconfigured if pallet sizes change significantly.  Experience with this innovation has demonstrated that the freeze time has been roughly reduced by 50% as compared to that of blast freezing for meat and protein products, desserts, soups, pharmaceuticals and other liquids.

 

QuickFreeze can also be used to temper products in as much as half the time over traditional thawing methods, resulting in higher weights, better quality, increased food safety, easier loading and unloading and no need for batch tempering.

The QF+ QuickFreezing system is custom-engineered specifically for the client.  Factors such as pallet configuration, refrigeration capacity, ambient temperature, product characteristics and required throughput are considered.

QF+ Freezing System and Interstate Warehouse

Designed to utilize airflow to influence freeze time, the QF+ Freezing System has the ability to increase the temperature of the environment and increase air flow in order to generate a solution that is more energy efficient.  With airflow measured at 200 feet per minute between spacers using the QF+ Freezing System as compared to that of 15 feet per minute with traditional blast cell, the QuickFreeze reduces labor time and cost substantially. Variable Retention Time (VRT) Blast Freezers are used to freeze or cool goods in cartons, trays or boxes and can freeze several different products, each with different freezing times and package sizes by relying on a programmable computer that controls its operation.

A real world test was conducted using two pallets of beef livers.  Both pallets were delivered to the cold storage facility to receive temperature probes and one outside case and one inside case from the pallet were tested.  Temperature probes were inserted into the product of both cases and then returned to the respective pallets.  Next, a temperature probe was placed on the mini cell to obtain and record room temperature then the pallet was placed in the Mini Cell after first verifying an adequate seal on the Mini Cell.

The beef processor client considered both VRT and QFR processes and selected QFR.  The result was a savings in $5.1 million in capital cost as compared to VRT and the QFR process satisfied all quality control benchmarks.

Additionally, $190,000 a year were saved in annual utilities and $115,000 was received in Energy Efficiency Grants from the power company.

Additional client case studies can be reviewed here.

For a video look at this technology, click here.

Conclusion

3PL cold storage and refrigerated warehouse operators are relying on technology to help meet the needs of consumers, keep costs down, help meet regulatory requirements for food safety and other issues.

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