Below Zero: The Challenges and Role of Automation in Cold Storage Warehouses 

by Prime Robotics
May 1, 2024
cold storage warehouse

Cold storage warehouses play a critical role in storing and preserving perishable or temperature-sensitive goods—such as food products, medicines, and chemicals. These facilities are equipped with cooling systems to maintain specific temperature ranges and ensure the quality, safety, and shelf-life of stored goods. 

Cold storage warehouses use various technologies and automation solutions to optimize temperature control, inventory management, and operational efficiency. These systems help ensure products maintain the highest quality until they reach the end user. 

Below, we explore key features of cold storage warehouses, common challenges faced by operators, and innovative solutions that drive success in these extreme environments. 

Key Components of Cold Storage Warehouses 

Cold storage warehouses feature several key elements to control temperatures and preserve perishable goods. These include insulation materials, vapor barriers, refrigeration systems, temperature sensors, and monitoring devices. The layout and organization of these facilities should maximize storage capacity and facilitate efficient product retrieval while allowing proper airflow and temperature distribution. 

Security measures, fire suppression systems, and backup power sources or generators are essential to protect products and maintain operations in unforeseen circumstances. Cold storage facilities should also have a robust inventory management system. Warehouse management software, radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, and barcode scanners enable accurate tracking, efficient order fulfillment, and real-time inventory monitoring. 

Cold Storage Challenges and Considerations  

Operating a cold storage warehouse comes with unique challenges. Here are a few common issues that impact the productivity of cold storage facilities, and how automation may help overcome them. 

Various types of goods with different requirements: 

Different products have different storage and handling requirements. Failing to meet these may compromise product safety and quality. This makes running a cold storage warehouse more difficult than traditional warehouses with less sensitive items. 

For example, the same facility may handle everything from fresh produce and ice cream to pharmaceutical products. These items require different temperature and humidity levels. The warehouse must consistently maintain these specific conditions and prevent cross-contamination between products. Modular insulated wall systems or compartmentalized refrigerated containers may be used to create this separation. Automated solutions, like Prime’s cold pallet-moving robot, are designed to withstand both frozen and refrigerated cold storage environments, allowing the seamless movement of goods through different climates and sections of the warehouse. 

Optimizing storage space: 

Maximizing the use of available climate-controlled storage space is another challenge facilities face. Traditional methods like pallet racking require several operating aisles for forklifts, limiting total storage space. 

High-density storage systems, which store goods vertically in racks, are a more efficient option for temperature-controlled warehouses. These systems reduce the number of operating aisles and make better use of space. Within an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS), automated pallet shuttles effortlessly move and store heavy pallets with a wide range of SKUs vertically. This allows cold storage warehouses to store more goods within the same footprint without needing to expand—an important benefit to offset the high costs of running these facilities. 

Operational disruptions: 

Delays or disruptions in cold storage operations can be detrimental. Any disruption that impacts cooling systems and causes temperature fluctuations may lead to product spoilage and losses. This includes power outages, equipment breakdowns, or even delays in loading or unloading truckloads. 

It’s important to have contingency plans in place to quickly recover from such events and minimize losses. For example, a warehouse may keep spare refrigeration parts (i.e. expansion valves) on hand for easy fixes in case something breaks. Automated picking and pallet-moving robots that operate in the cold are built with protective measures and materials, including regularly scheduled maintenance checks to prevent malfunctions. These systems also incorporate advanced navigation capabilities and obstacle avoidance features to ensure that goods are promptly moved to storage without risk of delays, spoilage, or damage.  

High labor and operating costs:

Operating a cold storage warehouse is expensive. Maintaining consistently low temperatures, especially when there’s a lot of movement in and out of the warehouse, results in high energy consumption. Robust refrigeration systems require a lot of power and lead to high utility bills. 

Labor costs are also significant. Working in cold temperatures is particularly challenging and makes hiring and maintaining employees challenging. Additionally, employees require specialized training and safety measures, like protective clothing. Automated solutions, such as robotic palletizing systems that are built to operate in cold environments, help fill in this labor gap, optimize existing resources, and reduce costs associated with training and high turnover. While humans must take additional breaks when working in the cold, robots operate 24/7 to further maximize productivity and save costs. 

Adverse effects on human health and equipment:

Operating in low temperatures for long periods may have negative impacts on people and equipment. Working in cold environments may cause humans to experience complications such as loss in concentration, decrease in dexterity, and frostbite. Slips and falls are more common in cold storage warehouses due to condensation from the accumulation of frozen or cold fluids. 

Cold storage conditions may also cause premature wear and failure of equipment. These warehouses require specialized equipment designed to withstand cold temperatures. 

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) that are customized for the cold are gaining popularity due to their durability and reliability. These AMRs are made with unique batteries and materials to operate at maximum productivity even in extreme temperatures. Automated solutions also handle tasks formerly done by humans and limit their exposure to the cold. For example, Prime’s cold robots autonomously transport and place goods in storage. This helps reduce people costs, enables faster order fulfillment, and improves overall throughput. 

Automated Solutions are the Future of Cold Storage Warehousing 

Cold storage warehousing is a complex and integral part of the supply chain. Global trade of temperature-sensitive goods is on the rise. The efficient and safe handling of these perishable goods—from frozen foods to medicines—is critical to meet increasing demands. 

Robotic automation helps cold storage facilities improve efficiency and overcome operational challenges. However, every cold storage environment is different. Working with an automation partner that understands your specific processes and requirements—and builds solutions tailored to those needs—ensures a successful deployment. 

Prime Robotics offers AMRs that are highly customizable for any cold storage climate and operate in environments as low as –5 °F. As global demand for cold storage continues to grow, these systems will help warehouses maintain the highest product quality and achieve maximum productivity. 

Contact us today to schedule your workflow assessment and learn how Prime Robotics’ solutions optimize your cold storage operations. 

Prime Robotics