Home>Warehouse Storage>Cold storage>Automating the frozen food renaissance

Automating the frozen food renaissance

12 February 2014

For something that’s been on UK shelves since the 1950s, frozen food has been through something of a renaissance recently, says Swisslog UK sales manager Andrew Blair.

Lately, there’s growing recognition of the fact that frozen food can be just as nutritious, if not more so, than fresh. Research carried out on behalf of international frozen foods brand Birds Eye showed up to 15% of the goodness in peas is lost in 16 days; 10% of carrots; 25% of broccoli and cauliflower and a whopping 45% of green beans. Frozen has none of that to contend with.

Sales of frozen products is one of the fastest growing retail sectors and the growth in popularity has undoubtedly been helped by, and in turn helped shape, a number of innovative design solutions for deep-freeze warehouse applications.

Automation has grown in popularity for deep-freeze for a number of factors, not least of which are faster receiving and retrieval of deep-freeze products and the reduced staff recruitment and retention problems in deep-freeze jobs. Mechanisation in cold stores is undoubtedly more reliable and well proven today than it was just five or ten years ago, with many additional years’ experience now in the bank, reliability will increase further still. Even more so, the latest developments have pushed the technology, and the advantages, even further.

Typically, when looking at a new design we consider how moves can be achieved with lowest energy while still maintaining required throughput. Keeping energy input low means that less cooling is required, making the whole system more productive and cost-effective.

One way of achieving this is by running at different speeds and accelerations at specific low throughput times to reduce overall energy usage. At the opposite end of the scale, techniques utilising double pallet handling can reduce overall costs and still enable high throughputs, whilst increased energy recovery through advance control systems is now becoming essential.

Monitoring energy usage becomes a key tool as it provides valuable comparative data to highlight when changes occur, enabling better management and early identification of potential failures.

When considering the flow of goods before the product leaves the cold store it also helps if the warehouse solution provides the ability to reliably track, trace and monitor individual products.

Manual handling leaves open the possibility of human error, but streamlined programmable logic controlled (PLC) automation, integrated with a warehouse management system (WMS), provides this data quickly with reliable and verifiable documentation. This type of vital management data enables the system to identify pallets that can be moved into an ambient / chill area for picking while still maintaining quality. Crucially, transport infrastructure and 3PL logistics are now also able to monitor and provide temperature data for audit purposes.

In other systems, some modern pick solutions allow automated case picking to take place in a chilled zone, without the need for workers to operate in the sub-zero environment, while maintaining a deep-freeze temperature for products.

High cube utilisation with satellite systems are also proving attractive. In such cases, the system can be left to automatically stack while a forklift truck driver continues other operations thus improving operational efficiency. Finally there’s also great potential for automaton when pallets are ready to ship.

Storing products in bulk as they arrive is still possible. If, when an order or set of orders is later received, all the pallets are brought out of storage in any required sequence. A shuttle system can re-arrange the order, making it most suitable for lorry loading. So-called, sorting on out feed.

However the market recovers, what is certain is that our appetites for exotic foods, out of season ready-to-eat fruit and vegetables, and a general dislike of artificial preservatives, means the growth in the frozen sector is set to continue. And with advanced innovation offering greater and greater efficiencies, automation is undoubtedly set to grow with it.