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Preferred Freezer Services: Very cool automation

Preferred Freezer Services takes materials handling automation to a new level in a New Jersey warehouse.

The AS/RS features 10 aisles, five cranes and 25,000 pallet positions and operates in an energy-saving, lights-out environment.

By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
February 09, 2012

Automation evolution
Over the last decade, PFS developed new warehouse designs. In 2000, the 3PL developed the design for a 60-foot-tall, semi-automated, very narrow aisle DC. “The Generation II design was taller and squarer than the 42-foot-tall warehouses we were building in the 1990s,” says Galiher. The new design was also 50% larger than the facilities being built by the rest of the industry, but 20% more efficient to operate than the Generation 1 style.

The design and location of new warehouses was driven by a number of factors.

One was a strategic approach to where it located facilities. “Where the warehouses used to be and where they will be tomorrow is changing,” Galiher says. “Traffic patterns and the cost of fuel are changing where we put our facilities.”

Similarly, the challenges of finding and keeping labor willing to work in a harsh environment dictated changes. “Given the option, most people would rather work in a conventional warehouse than a freezer warehouse at minus 10 degrees,” says Galiher. “They have to wear clothing and gloves that slow them down and they have to take breaks to warm up. They’re just not as productive.”

Similarly, since the freezer space is behind a wall, associates are harder to supervise in a temperature-controlled environment. 

Finally, customers are more aware than ever of how their 3PLs are performing. “Thanks to warehouse management systems, our customers are armed with metrics and KPIs,” says Galiher. “Our business is no longer predicated on the belief that we’re performing. Our customers measure and benchmark us. We have to prove we’re doing a good job.”

Generation III
With competitive pressures mounting, PFS improved on the proven Generation II design with a new automated warehouse it calls Generation III. “When it comes to automation, we don’t think we have a choice,” says Galiher. “If all you’re doing is moving a pallet from point A to point B, that’s an opportunity to automate and reduce your costs.”

The first automated facilities were built overseas. The Elizabeth warehouse, which was built on a 20-acre parcel that includes a Generation II warehouse, is the fifth facility of the design to go up.

While the other facility on the property primarily handles port-based services, the new warehouse will deliver product to customers in New York and New Jersey.

In the right application, automation addresses labor concerns and new customer demands.

  • Better utilization of space: The AS/RS allows PFS to increase the height of its DCs an additional 20% to 72 feet. That delivers more cubic feet of storage in the same footprint.

  • Accurate and reliable: The repeatability of performance delivers a better product. “Machines are very accountable,” says Galiher. “In the right application, you don’t have damage, the machine doesn’t take breaks, and your orders and inventory are perfect.”

  • Labor and energy savings: A lights-out operating environment not only saves on labor, it controls the temperature and humidity in the freezer. “In a dry warehouse, you have the cost of electricity to light a work area,” says Galiher. “In a freezer, the heat from the lights and the challenges of changing a light bulb 70 feet in the air in minus 10 degrees create issues. The most efficient freezer is one with no lights.”

In addition to automated storage and retrieval, the Generation III design incorporates several other features designed to maintain the humidity and temperature in the building.

High-speed doors open and close quickly when a crane is retrieving or delivering pallets to the dock area.

The facility is one of the first to use a new style of dock designed for the food industry. When the truck is backed into the building, the dock doors are still locked and sealed. The design allows the doors to swing open inside the warehouse, never exposing the building to the ambient temperatures or the weather. “Once the truck is in place, you open the doors, drop the dock plate and go to work,” says Galiher. “When you’re done, you close the doors and pull the trailer away without ever exposing the truck or the loading dock to ambient temperatures.”

With its fifth automated facility up and running, Galiher says PFS is looking at other opportunities for automation. “We have looked at truck loading automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) to load and unload trucks,” Galiher says. “The dock is still a highly dynamic environment and we don’t think AGV technology is there yet. But those are the kinds of movements that should be automated.”

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Executive Editor

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. More recently, Trebilcock became editorial director of Supply Chain Management Review. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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