Automation is by no means a new concept. The word – and its execution origin – date back to the days of Henry Ford. Early automation consisted of using machines to perform relatively easy and repetitive tasks on a production line.[i] Today though, automation expands beyond manufacturing with physical advancements and incorporation of artificial intelligence. This new-age automation is a useful and effective investment as long as the technology works as part of a larger growth agenda.
While automation is probably most recognisable in the automotive, chip fabrication, and pharmaceutical industries, it is leveraged in a range of industries and businesses. At Americold, our customers often ask if we’re using automation in our day-to-day temperature-controlled warehouse operations. The answer is yes, but in very calculated and deliberate ways. Our automation strategies benefit our customers and their cold supply chains.
First, Americold recognises that complex, multi-routine tasks are still best handled by humans. We are proud of our nearly 17,000 Americold associates; they play an important role in serving our customers. Second, automation technology is still relatively expensive, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, and in freezer environments. Because of this, systems are most efficient when designed to scale and built for the long term. Some providers may use the lure of automation to win clients, then rollout systems to support a specific customer profile. This approach lacks long-term effectiveness, as it’s not designed to flex with evolving consumer needs and changes in product velocities, packaging, product mix, etc.
Americold leverages a holistic approach to cold supply chain automation. We work with our customers to understand their needs now and in the future, and incorporate automation when and where it makes sense for them. Automation examples in Americold’s temperature-controlled infrastructure include: putting away and retrieving pallets of product, product layer picking, case picking, goods-to-person conveyance, pallet building and wrapping pallets, and internal product transportation. The benefits of such automation in the cold chain are passed onto our customers and include:
- Dependability – A fully functioning automated cold chain system is reliable with little to no fluctuation in expected performance for a given set of tasks. A system can move “X” number of pallets in an hour and functions 24 hours a day. This predictability ensures reliable outcomes.
- Adaptability – Advancements in materials and controls have allowed for automation in extreme environments (i.e. cold storage and supply chains). Adaptability also applies to scalability, meaning the right systems can accommodate evolving customer needs.
- Cost Controls – With the exception of installation, testing, and routine maintenance, once an automated system is running, costs are relatively low.
- Environmentally Responsible – Electric machinery can be expensive to operate, but a variable frequency drive (VFD) regenerates electric power while a system’s motor decelerates. Americold invests in regenerative units to ensure responsible and efficient cold chain operation.
- Optimal Building Footprint – A forklift has a finite height it can lift a pallet to for storage – it’s why most warehouse facilities are 4 or 5 pallet positions high and have a large footprint in order to achieve a certain pallet volume capacity. Plus, land is expensive! An automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) crane has a limit that’s 2 to 3 times higher than a forklift and can operate in a much smaller work area, enabling a smaller building footprint with narrower aisles that can actually accommodate more pallets in a vertical stack. This provides for a smaller footprint and decreased roof area, which is more effective for maintaining a constant environment inside the building. And, this provides more space for on-site value-added service activities.
Process automation is designed to make our daily lives easier. From apps, to bill paying, to temperature-controlled supply chain management, the right temperature-controlled supply chain automation design has a permanent place in our day-to-day lives.
If you’re looking to evaluate cold chain automation and conventional systems for your temperature-controlled supply chain network, contact Americold today and we can work with you to design the right mix of technologies to optimize your experience.
[i] Groover, M. P.. "Automation." Encyclopedia Britannica, October 22, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/technology/automation.
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