Today, the majority of refrigerated and frozen food warehouses have recognized the operational benefits of automation. Most have implemented automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) to bring pallets out for manual picking by teams of staff. While these products get picked in less frigid environments, employees still need to work in cold and cumbersome conditions.

With an expanding number of SKUs to manage, frequent orders to meet, and constant “warm-up” breaks for a shrinking number of employees, refrigerated and frozen food facilities often struggle with the pains of inefficient product handling. There is certainly room for improvement, which automated order picking systems can help address.

The challenges of manual order picking in cold storage

The demand for refrigerated and frozen foods is as strong as ever. Specifically, more consumers are favoring the convenience and longer shelf life of frozen products. With demand increasing, so too does the need for pickers to fulfill orders. But despite a number of job openings, many facilities are dealing with significant labor shortages. The older generation of warehouse staff is gradually retiring, and the younger generation recognizes the harsh conditions of most cold storage facilities so they have little interest in these positions.

Traditionally, a true freezer is kept at -45 degrees Celsius. When pallets get brought out for picking by employees, the work areas still have consistent cold air blowing to make sure the products are always in an acceptable, safe temperature. Many workers have to take frequent breaks to warm up between the picking of orders. These conditions not only pose potential long-term harm to employees, but also hamper productivity. After all, time is of the essence when it comes to order fulfillment.

The benefits of automated cold order picking

By automating, companies can limit human responsibilities to supervisory tasks, such as picking sequence selection, transport planning and maintenance. Advanced robotics can take over the majority of picking operations, filling in the gaps created by insufficient staffing. Since staff no longer need to brave the cold, it significantly improves overall working conditions. These new technology-centered jobs can be more attractive to young graduates. Automated solutions also offer greater speed and flexibility, which can help warehouses get through upticks in order volume and optimize material flow from day to day.

Mini-load and layer pick systems

In warehouses with products stored in cases, boxes or cartons, an automated mini-load system is ideal. It can pick loads of products less than 220 lbs, and is well suited for smaller, fast jobs, where the system moves horizontally and vertically through high-density storage areas to pick products.

For facilities shipping refrigerated and frozen goods in layer quantities, a layer picking system can access a large volume of inventory with a single machine to create orders in any sequence. Orders get staged directly inside a robotic cell so operators can pick up one layer, multiple layers, entire pallet loads and rainbow pallets. These systems run at high speeds and without break, increasing overall productivity in the warehouse.

Facilities with both products in layers and cases can use a layer picking system together with their mini-load system, then combine orders at the end – with 100-percent order accuracy.

Demand for refrigerated and frozen foods shows no sign of wavering. According to a recent Bloomberg article, frozen food buying is steadily growing for the first time in five years. Nielsen estimates annual U.S. sales of frozen food at $53 billion. And, other industry reports have projected continuous growth in the global frozen food market up to 2023. Cold storage facilities that are struggling now with demand and insufficient staffing will need help keeping up with rising order numbers. Those that automate now will find their order picking systems to be a vital asset for years to come.

Author Bruce Bleikamp

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