Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, millennials purchased half their grocery products online, and e-commerce grocery shopping made up 4.5 percent of market share. As of January 2021, that same share is up to 12.5 percent and projected to rise another 9 percent by 2025 — creating a tipping point in consumer buying habits.
While food suppliers have traditionally had the capacity to prepare for seasonal demands, the pandemic has skyrocketed consumer e-commerce and grocery purchases, leaving stores scrambling to pick up the slack and meet today’s unprecedented requirements.
Now more than ever, food processing and distribution companies are aiming to expand cold chain logistics and automation systems — rather than creating a new in-house engineering department — to keep pace with demand and position for future growth. To achieve success in developing, designing, building, and maintaining complex, automated cold envelope facilities, we’re finding that a multilayered, integrated design-build approach is key from concept through completion.
Integrated Team, Holistic Solutions
Cold chain logistics solutions must balance product output, operations efficiency, and return on investment. There are few firms that have the required knowledge and deep experience with this multitiered, special-skills process of automated cold envelope solutions, which perfectly fit the mold of integrated design-build project delivery.
Cold chain logistics solutions must balance product output, operations efficiency, and return on investment.
This delivery model allows the engineer and general contractor to be in sync on design, procurement, and construction, while also maintaining the standards needed for engineering, equipment, piping, materials, and more. By having the entire team engaged upfront, the project business case can be optimized in a way that provides industry-leading client return on investment. Simply put, this model creates higher-performing solutions and more predictable project outcomes.
Intricate Development of Multifaceted Facilities
Envision an extremely cold submarine, on land, storing your frozen foods. For the facility to fulfill its required functions, the envelope must be configured with the structure wrapped by an insulated airtight envelope. The inside environment of a building needs to accommodate a variety of perishable foods and goods, often requiring multiple temperature zones. Climatic conditions exert significant pressure on the exterior of the building containing refrigerated areas, allowing moist air to find its way through any nook and cranny to infiltrate into the cold environment. The operations and building systems are dependent upon the envelope working continuously to prevent condensation and the formation of frost. Adding complexity to maintaining a consistent interior environment, the facility requires multiple openings to allow free movement of material handling equipment (conveyors, pallet jacket, forklifts, etc.) uninterrupted through multiple temperature zones.
There are many detailed tasks that must be accomplished in these unique conditions around the clock. On top of that, cold working environments — especially those accommodating freezers — are becoming increasingly difficult to staff as cost-effective cold environments are needed in more urban and suburban areas.
The inside environment of a building needs to accommodate a variety of perishable foods and goods, often requiring multiple temperature zones.
It’s complicated. Smaller, more efficient facilities are needed to overcome site constraints. Automation allows owners and operators to maximize efficiencies within their facilities, where severe temperatures and challenging productivity rates are more conducive to a mechanical workforce. Greenfield development is optimal in providing the most cost-effective square footage vertically and horizontally for a distribution center equipped with an automated storage and retrieval system. Automation storage and retrieval systems provide a 30 percent increase in storage density by maximizing the building height from 60 to 120 feet, to reducing the overall footprint of the storage area.
Modularization offers an ideal method to create cold storage facilities quickly, safely, and in a manner that fits well into the fabric of existing development zones in most suburban and urban areas. Although existing structures may not be as tall (usually only 25 to 30 feet), they allow for project completion from 50 percent to 100 percent more quickly than new builds. This discrepancy in project delivery speed is due to less permitting, which can be cumbersome, and reduced material procurement needs such as structural steel, which is in short supply. Speed to market makes up for the additional machinery necessary to operate lengthwise in typical warehouse layouts.
Automation allows owners and operators to maximize efficiencies within their facilities, where severe temperatures and challenging productivity rates are more conducive to a mechanical workforce.
One key component of successful, cost-effective plan implementation is maintaining established relationships with suppliers, as well as understanding the steel materials and specialized machinery that optimize build cold facilities. Long-standing relationships and decades of experience result in quickly ordered, price-controlled and diverse options tailored to the food company’s needs among multiple best-fit vendors.
Tackling Challenges to Maximize Value
As consumer demands and expectations evolve, so do the core elements in logistics, causing providers to rethink the right fit for any given demographic. Even with automation and adaptive reuse design solutions, executing cold chain logistics projects is complex and requires a comprehensive approach to identify and manage challenges. Building in an urban area calls for consideration of road infrastructure for large freight loading and unloading, local and state regulations for facility height and overall size, exterior materials to blend into urban fabric, and so much more. Equally as important as procuring the right materials for the project is balancing financial solutions with site challenges, consumer demand, and level of technology desired.
Brian Chatham, project manager at Burns & McDonnell, specializes in diverse industrial robot applications, conveyance, automated guided vehicles, automated storage and retrieval systems, and the integration of technology for manufacturing and distribution facilities. With nearly 30 years of experience, he focuses on pairing technology with lean processes for efficient client operations. He is committed to bringing diverse teams, ideas, and processes together to develop competitive and adaptable products. Chatham is a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt (LSSBB) and Demand Flow Technologist (DFT).
Jeremy Klysen brings more than 20 years of experience in project planning, engineering and construction. Jeremy delivers solutions for facilities involved in food and consumer products, specializing in old storage and food distribution facilities.
Joseph Scovronski, a senior architect at Burns & McDonnell, has more than 30 years of experience as a project architect and leads design services for multifaceted refrigerated warehouse facilities. Highly skilled in facility evaluation and assessments, thermal/vapor design, and building protection systems, Scovronski has delivered refrigerated solutions for customers in more than 20 states.