Using Automation to Optimize Labor in the Cold Chain

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christian dow
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When professional football players take the field in subzero weather conditions wearing short-sleeved jerseys and no extra layers, they’re touting their toughness. But in reality, they’ve got nothing on the dedicated warehouse workers who handle refrigerated and frozen products day in and day out.

It’s one thing to brave harsh conditions for a three-hour game; it’s quite another to spend every work shift in a cold environment where you can see your breath when you exhale. Amid a prolonged labor shortage, many industries, including material handling, have struggled to hire and retain sufficient manpower, but that task is even more challenging in cold-chain operations where frigid temperatures can erode employee morale.

“Very few people want to work in the cold environment, particularly when you’re talking about freezer temperatures or even deep freeze,” said Brian Keiger, vice president of MHI member Conveyco. “Training becomes a real issue because of constant turnover.”

Cold environments aren’t just uncomfortable for employees; they can be dangerous. Even if workers take frequent breaks to warm up, they still face risks from cold stress, including hypothermia, frostbite, trench foot and chilblain, the painful inflammation of small blood vessels in the skin, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

using automation to optimize

High turnover in the cold chain hinders operations, with insufficient training leading to picking and shipping errors and diminished customer satisfaction, Keiger said. Cold temperatures affect workers’ thinking and decision-making capabilities, and even the best employees need breaks every 10 minutes when working in freezing conditions, bringing throughput to a halt, he added.

“With the labor laws, if you’re working in the freezer, you have to take frequent breaks, and that’s where some issues arise for warehouses because your efficiencies go down, your pick rates go down, and your risk of some type of medical issue goes up.”

To address those challenges, distributors of refrigerated and frozen goods such as food and pharmaceuticals increasingly are turning to automated material-handling equipment. By implementing equipment such as automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) and vertical reciprocating conveyors (VRC), warehouses can greatly reduce the manpower needed for cold-chain operations.

Enabling workers to spend more time in ambient temperatures improves their working conditions and can reduce turnover, said Stephen Wilson, account executive at MHI member Slate River Systems Inc. Automated equipment also doesn’t suffer from cold stress or call out sick.

“The robots don’t take breaks,” Wilson said. “They’re constantly working, and they’re self-charging, so they plug in automatically.”

High-density storage solutions such as an ASRS often use multidirectional pallet shuttles to store and retrieve large numbers of SKUs in a limited footprint. That’s a key consideration for warehouses looking to reduce the costs associated with maintaining the cold chain.

Especially in deep-freeze environments, where products such as ice cream and seafood are stored at temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius, power consumption is a major cost driver, said Conveyco’s Keiger.

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